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Kushina had heard that giving birth was a noisy, messy, and painful affair. So far, the pain wasn't much worse than what she encountered in her day-job, she was relatively clean, and the noise was coming from the father-to-be's alternately terrified and thrilled chatter to the long-suffering midwife doing arcane things under the sheet covering Kushina's knees. She heard the muffled phrase, "Hokage-sama, I have done this before," for the third time, and tried not to laugh. It would hurt too much, she suspected.

Poor Sarutobi Biwako didn't seem to know if she wanted to be amused or kick Minato out of the delivery room. Patient woman. She was all but a saint, really.

Kushina gritted her teeth and tried not to react at the faces Minato was making, giving her genin teammate Mikoto a surreptitious hand-sign. It didn't really mean anything- it was an adaption of Minato's personal call sign with extra emphasis. The joke was at his expense, even if neither of them could quite verbalize how he was being teased for his near-panic.

The Uchiha grinned, her reserved nature overcome by her good mood. Kushina's smile became a little wider, until an especially vigorous contraction made her flinch. Her husband's eyes jumped to her face like she was an Iwa-nin with a big stick, looking just about as worried.

"Kushina!" Minato fluttered his hands in that girlish way he swore he didn't do, all but hovering at the slightest sign of discomfort.

"I'm fine," she stressed, working to keep signs of tiredness and effort off her face. "Honestly, 'ttebane, you'd think you were the one doing the work here! Why don't you calm down, huh?"

Mikoto snorted, and then ventured a guilty look at the Sandaime Hokage's wife, who was technically the senior physician present. The older woman didn't pay her any attention, but her assistant Taji-san leveled the Uchiha lady with an expression of amused tolerance that probably did nothing to make Mikoto feel less like a child.

"Hokage-sama!" Biwako-san said sternly, pulling her head up enough to give him a dark-eyed stare. Her tone implied that she was actually talking to an excitable child and not her military leader. "Calm yourself. Please focus your attention on the seal. Your wife is doing her work admirably, and you must do yours."

He probably wasn't meant to hear the muttered, "I always forget how weak and frightened men are, until I see one panic while his wife does all the hard work."

When Kushina looked over, Mikoto carefully pressed her lips into a thin line, forcing down visible amusement.

Mikoto wouldn't even have been present, had it not been for the fact that this birth was strenuous for so many reasons. Childbirth was enough of an ordeal on its own. When the mother was a jinchuuriki and having twins, it was terrifyingly complicated. Mikoto probably wouldn't be much help, but she was a certified medic nin and Kushina's best friend. At worst, she would be an extra set of hands to hold one infant while the more experienced medical ninja were occupied. She had to be there in case something went wrong.

She was probably doing a better job of helping keep Kushina calm than Minato, if truth were to be told.

An ugly smile had frozen on Kushina's face. Unbeknownst to her, it was considerably more worrisome than the screwed-up grimace she wanted to make. She swallowed, hard, and concentrated on pushing.

' I'd say I feel green, but my face is so hot I can only be red.'

Perfect. She really was the tomato woman.

"It's crowning."

Correction. She was the tomato woman half-way through giving birth to twins! Kushina crowed in victory, straining so hard that she was mildly concerned she had popped a vein. Surely it was all downhill from here.

Twins had been an unexpected surprise. As far as she knew, there wasn't an Uzumaki tendency towards multiple pregnancies. She'd blame this happy anomaly on Minato, but the first time she had tried, Mikoto had bored her to tears with a lecture about eggs.

'Eggs… I'm hungry. I could go for some victory ramen.' Kushina licked her dry lips, breathing through her nose. Minato misinterpreted the motion and hastily tipped a bit of ice-cold water into her mouth. She swallowed automatically and gave her twitchy husband a dry look.

Minato blinked down at her, painfully eager to do anything he could to alleviate her discomfort, even as his right hand remained firmly planted on the seal over her belly.

And suddenly she didn't have the heart to call him a dimwit pretty boy. It was too easy of a target, really. She could bully him later.

'He's going to be on diaper duty,' Kushina decided seriously, grinning with far too much teeth. 'I did the hard work for ten months, so I think he can have that minor problem for twenty months.'

Hokage, ho-shmag-e. His job was important, sure, but not as important as their budding family. Twins was an awesome start, actually! It was so exciting, she was minutes away from being a parent. She was going to be the best mom ever. She'd take her babies everywhere and they'd fingerpaint together and she would teach them how to mess up their daddy's hair so that he squawked and flailed and- and- She was so happy.

"Uhhh," Kushina huffed, squeezing her eyes shut. She could do without this part, though.

There was a perfectly timed four-person gasp in the next moment, which Kushina barely heard over the ringing in her ears and the slick, struggling feeling of a decent amount of matter making an ungraceful exodus out of her uterus. Her gut roiled, and she couldn't breathe for a moment, as the second mass –now distinguishable from the first feisty infant—moved down to fill the void where the other had been.

"Girl," Biwako-san called briskly. After a moment, there was a shocked wail. Kushina heaved her head up through sheer force of will, straining for a glimpse. All she saw was Taji-san carefully cleaning what looked like a bundle of blankets, taking measurements and scans of some sort while Mikoto hurriedly copied them down on a clip board.

'A girl, a girl, a girl,' Kushina chanted over the sounds of Taji soothing the infant, tears welling up from both pain and relief. That was odd, they'd thought the pregnancy was two identical boys, not a set of fraternal twins. Ha. They were going to have to go back to their old list of names. They'd never decided on a girl's name.

Neither of them actually cared about the gender, of course, but it gave her something silly to think about and keep her mood light while Minato worked on ensuring that she didn't inadvertently kill them with her uterus (or something. She was a bit fuzzy on the details of fuinjutsu-uterus interaction).

'Maybe we'll let Mikoto-chan pick, since she's the godmother,' Kushina thought deliriously, heart so light with joy that it might rise out of her chest.

Her hand twitched on the bedsheet. Kushina gritted her teeth and avoided the urge to take her husband's hand. She wanted to touch him right now, but he needed his hands and attention. Not being able to hold his hand right now was a small sacrifice in exchange for safely bringing two little Uzumaki into the world.

'I want to see them so badly,' she thought wistfully, for what had to have been the hundredth time. It'd be the first time she'd seen another Uzumaki since Mito-sama had given her the Nine-Tailed fox.

An ugly groan tore her from her thoughts. It took a moment to recognize that the sound had come from her lips. Kushina blinked dazedly, registering in the back of her mind that Mikoto-chan and Taji-san were having a hushed conversation over her baby-

"Check my readings, would you-"

"Odd-"

"-isproportional ratio of spiritu-"

Was something wrong? Distressed, Kushina tried to sit up on her cushions a bit more, eyes wide.

"Relax," Biwako-san cautioned. "Your girl is healthy. Do not fret. You shall see your children in a moment. You're doing very well, Kushina-chan."

With supreme effort, Kushina nodded. Biwako-san was right. She needed to keep working on her second child, and let the medics handle the first. Still, she noted that Mikoto-chan had finished filling out a chart and birth certificate, and was instead holding the bundle of green blankets that had to be her baby. Kushina could swear that she caught sight of a messy shock of wispy red hair—not a true, dark shade like hers, but something closer to the twists of orange in a sunset.

Then the spot of color was out of her line of sight as the Chuunin crooned, gently swaying with her burden. A beatific smile cracked across the small woman's face as she settled down in the back of the room, as far away from the commotion as possible.

' Mikoto-chan is going to be an amazing godmother. I know it.'

Better than Mina-kun's choice of his scruffy sensei for godfather, but Kushina didn't really mind. She liked Jiraiya. His books were actually pretty funny. She'd used them to tease her genin teammates so many times—Shiba-kun still stuttered everytime someone so much as mentioned the word 'sex', despite having an infant of his own now.

The transition between being pregnant and being a mother was a disorienting one that rocked her body. Not more painful, exactly, but birth and after-birth were definitely memorable sensations. As soon as her head stopped spinning, Kushina heard Biwako-san's voice.

"A boy, Kushina-chan," the satisfied midwife declared, giving the medical check herself. That was odd, but Kushina didn't think about it. "And he's in perfect health!"

'A boy? Aw, well, they can't both be super-surprising right at the start,' Kushina decided with a wild sort of joy. Naruto it was, then. Uzumaki Naruto had such a nice ring to it. She craned, trying to catch the first glimpse of her baby boy before Mikoto spirited him away to snuggle too.

"He's gorgeous," Taji-san added with a smile, beginning to gently towel him clean.

Minato took a deep, shuddering breath. For the first time Kushina saw that his eyes were swimming with unshed tears of happiness. The warm hands on her abdomen gently rose, and for a moment, he looked at her. The adoration in his gaze stunned her silent.

"Biwako-sama," he breathed, turning his head toward the tiny woman with the long brown ponytail. "May I-"

"No," Biwako-san said bluntly. Kushina let out a surprised peal of laughter at the pure shock on her husband's face. "The mother should see her children first. Mikoto-san, are you planning on stealing that baby, or may Kushina-chan see her daughter?"

Mikoto-chan stood with a rustle of clothing as quickly as she could, face burning bright red at the scolding.

Normally, Kushina would have drank in that sight gleefully. But Biwako-san had just nestled her baby boy in Kushina's waiting arms, and was peeling down a soft blanket to reveal-

A blade, sticking out of the front of Biwako-san's chest. Kushina's grip on her son nearly slipped out of pure shock.

Biwako-san gave a surprised gurgle, even as Taji-san shrieked and then fell, hot blood flying over Kushina's bare feet and the wet slap of meat falling against tile was a shocked counterpoint to the sudden coldness in Kushina's arms where a warm baby had been only an instant before. She didn't even register Biwako-san's knees buckling or the sound of Mikoto's sandaled feet skittering backwards.

She was too busy frozen, staring up at the masked man who was holding her baby boy with the business end of a kunai far, far too close to the delicate bundle. Minato was frozen—not in shock, but paralyzed by the underhanded threat. Even by shinobi standards, that was low.

"Oh kami," Mikoto whispered, shockingly loud in the silence.

"Fourth Hokage," slipped out from behind the sleek, abstract mask in a sinfully smooth rumble. Kushina felt like a rabbit, frozen in fear as she hadn't been before or since the day that she was kidnapped by Kumo-nin after her bloodline. "I wouldn't move if I were you."

"Please," Kushina begged, not even knowing what she was asking for. If it was possible, the pain on Minato's face became even harder to bear.

She couldn't tell, but the glance the masked man leveled on her might have been pity or condescension.

"How badly do you want this, I wonder?"

This? This? Not a person, not a sweet baby boy, but an object?

"Come and take him from me."

And then both men were gone. Kushina wailed, in the instant before her mind caught up with her. Mikoto-chan rushed over, red eyes wide and fearful in her pale face. Kushina was already forcing herself to stand.

"What do we do? Wai- Kushina, you can't be up right now! You just gave birth."

"Don't care," Kushina gasped, forcing feeling into her numb legs and ignoring the feeling of wetness against her thighs. She stepped over Biwako-san and Taji-san with a one-minded determination despite the scream of grief in her mind, moving to the streets. "It shouldn't be hard to find the fight. I-"

She cut herself off, shocked despite reason at the sight of four mangled, bloody corpses just outside the door to her delivery room. Had she given it thought she would have known that the ANBU guard must have been defeated, but-

"What about your daughter?" Mikoto asked in a hushed tone, clearly scanning for enemies or traps. "What if he wants her too?"

Kushina whirled on her long-time friend and grabbed her shoulders. "Miko-chan, can I ask you a favor?" she asked with a choked laugh.

Mikoto-chan blinked away tears. "Anything."

"Get my baby to the Hokage tower. There'll be plenty of backup there. I'll meet you as soon as I can, alright? If I get back my son, then that man won't be able to use him against Minato." She leaned over and pushed down a bit of fabric with trembling fingers before placing a kiss to the sweet little forehead she hadn't yet had chance to examine. "Mikoto-oba-san will keep you safe, okay," she promised waveringly, trying not to cry.

"Yes, I will," Mikoto-chan agreed, leaning her forehead against Kushina in the closest approximation to a hug she could manage while holding an infant. "I'll take the underground. Through ANBU."

"Good idea."

With that, Uchiha Mikoto watched her best friend disappear into the twilight with a heavy heart. After a moment, she moved to re-cover the infant and held the girl closely to her chest. "Don't worry, sweetheart," she whispered. "Mama's gonna save the day."

Only then did she realize that the infant was oddly silent—as if she had been shocked into fearful quiet by the rapid events. But she couldn't possibly comprehend what was going on, she was less than an hour old. Ridiculous. It felt like an omen, that even the baby acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. But Mikoto forced those thoughts away and instead took advantage of the silence as a blessing, moving rapidly towards what she hoped was safety.

Of course, when an explosion of red-hot chakra seeped in unholy fury washed across her not ten minutes later, Mikoto wept out loud.

'Kushina, be safe,' she prayed, despite suspecting that her best friend was already dead.


A very confused and unhappy girl in the hospital got her own name two days after the blur of pressure and noise and the swish of pretty dark hair that had defined her first day in the world of chakra and shinobi.

It was lucky that she was even awake long enough to register the incident. The sound of childish wails in the hospital nursery was constant enough that she had learned to sleep through it, and infants seemed to do nothing but sleep. She opened her eyes despite not being able to interpret the human-shaped blurs that moved around her. Her sight was poor, but her keen hearing did her no good because the sounds she recognized as language certainly weren't in her language.

When she was picked up by warm hands and bundled against a bony male chest while the woman who had lifted her hovered nearby, she awoke enough to squint up at the pointy blur that she assumed was a face.

To be fair to her confusion, it didn't really fit the pattern for a face. The top half of the shape was right—there was a shock of light colored hair, a pointy nose, and a dark grey eye. But only one eye. And try as she might, she couldn't pick out a mouth.

The boy holding her had to have one, however, because the slight rumble of his chest coincided with the sounds that bubbled up around her. When an over large hand appeared in her field of vision she grabbed at it instinctively, and followed it back to a much more conventional face. It had two eyes and everything, as well as pretty red lips.

Without a conscious decision, she gurgled and tightened her grip around the finger offered. Red lips split into a tired smile.

The only word she caught out of what the woman said next was 'Aiko', and that was only because it had been in the short phrase spoken a moment earlier by the boy holding her. She fell asleep almost immediately. It took a few more days for her to realize that Aiko was her name.


October fourteenth

"You did not recognize the man who attacked?" Sarutobi Hiruzen repeated, his dry tone implying that he didn't find the statement particularly persuasive.

Uchiha Mikoto bristled a little bit, before Fugaku's calming presence at her side brought her back to earth. He wouldn't want to see her lose her temper. "No," she said, as calmly as she could manage. "I did not recognize him. As I said, he was wearing a mask."

"Just one man killed four ANBU operatives, my wife" –his voice shook- "a Chuunin medic-nin, and led to the deaths of the Yondaime Hokage and his wife not two hours later. You were the only person that he spared who might tell of what had been done. That seems like the kind of man you might remember."

Mikoto exchanged a disturbed look with her husband.

"Are you attempting to imply that my wife has lied about what she witnessed?" Fugaku asked, disapproval and shock warring for prominence in his tone.

There was a moment of silence, and then the Hokage painted on a smile that did not seem particularly genuine. "No, of course not."

That meant yes.

"You must understand, however," he continued, "that the situation is unusual."

"Keeping orphans away from their legal guardian?" Fugaku butted in. "I would say so, yes."

His mouth shut so suddenly that his teeth clacked when the Sandaime gave him a hard-eyed look with the full brunt of his displeasure. The power couple were unpleasantly reminded that no matter how old, no matter how diminished, the man in front of them was their superior in every meaning of the word.

"You are of course aware that the person who released the Nine-Tailed fox had to have been an Uchiha," the Sandaime said quietly.

The world tilted.

"What?" Mikoto let the word fall from her lips without thought for how undignified it was. "That is-"

"Absurd, a children's story!" Fugaku continued, his voice like thunder. "It is utterly baseless, an accusation without merit."

Now that his pride had been offended he went on furiously, and Mikoto squeezed her eyes shut just for a moment. She wished that her husband would keep his temper. He had wanted to come to provide her support in making her arguments, but if he became aggressive, her chances of leaving with her two youngest babies were harmed.

"Please, Hokage-sama," she broke in, her quiet voice forcing her husband to flicker his eyes to her and stop talking. "I do not understand. Kushina-chan made me the guardian of her children. Let me take my babies and go home. They are all I have left of her. Surely you do not claim that I would do less than my best to care for the twins, or that I am incapable. I have the time, the love, and the resources to give them a better life than their parents had."

That was a low blow, and it made the Sandaime cringe, just a little. Kushina and Minato had both been orphaned at young ages. Neither of them would have wanted that for their children. And Mikoto was an excellent mother.

"We can provide everything they will ever need," Fugaku broke in, perhaps sensing that the Sandaime was weakening. "The Yondaime's children will want for nothing."

His statement had the opposite effect it was intended to. The Sandaime's face creased in disapproval. "Uchiha-dono, no one but the clan heads now know that those children belonged to the Yondaime," Hiruzen said stiffly. "We must take that name out of the discussion completely when we place the children. While it was impossible to keep Kushina-chan's pregnancy a secret and many will be looking for her child, any considerations related to their father are counterproductive."

In other words, the Sandaime thought that Fugaku wanted the twins because of the prestige they could bring the clan. He wasn't wrong, exactly. Fugaku would have supported Mikoto's bid for Kushina's children if they were not politically important. But since they were, his interest was piqued.

Her husband's face soured momentarily, but he wasn't fazed. "Then we shall absorb them into the clan without giving hint as to their parentage."

"A blonde boy and a redheaded girl," Sarutobi remarked dryly. "They will not blend in well with your clan."

"We can color their hair," Fugaku dismissed. "I assume that you planned to deny them their name, in order to keep them secret. We can offer them a surname and the protection that comes with it."

"They will become officially known as Uzumaki to honor their mother when the time comes to fill out their Academy paperwork," Hiruzen said mildly, picking up his pipe and tapping at it. "Until then, nameless they shall remain."

Fugaku clearly didn't understand why the Hokage would choose to treat the children as peasant orphans when they could have the prestige of a clan name, but forged ahead regardless. "They would be as my own children," he continued stiffly.

"And then in twenty years Naruto would be Hokage and Aiko-chan would be married to Itachi," Hiruzen said dryly.

Mikoto tried not to wince. That had probably been Fugaku's plan, yes, with the exception that Fugaku probably wouldn't have cared which of his sons Aiko ended up marrying.

The village was nowhere near ready to accept an Uchiha kage. But the child of the Yondaime, raised by the Uchiha—that would be a different matter, one that inextricably tied the clan to the highest echelons of the village for generations to come. It would be the political coup of the century.

But that wasn't what she cared about (though she wouldn't protest too loudly either if it happened naturally). Mikoto did not want to use Kushina's babies as devices for political positioning. She wanted to love them and raise them well in honor of her dead friend.

She realized with a sinking heart that it was too late. Now that Fugaku and the Sandaime were thinking of the twins in terms of their political value, the legal protection of her supposed guardianship and the emotional arguments she could muster would do no good.

'He mentioned that the clan heads all knew of the twins' parentage,' Mikoto suddenly realized, connecting an unpleasant thought. She voiced her suspicion, already knowing the answer.

"Other clans have already petitioned for guardianship," she said flatly.

Hiruzen looked mildly surprised at her leap in logic, but nodded in acknowledgment after a moment. "Yes," he agreed. "They have."

The snub caused Fugaku to freeze in shock for a moment. Their legal petition for guardianship was being blocked by clan politics. All the other clans should have been able to recognize that the Uchiha claim was the strongest and backed down. That they didn't meant that their clan's position was far more tenuous than they had realized.

The Uchiha power couple seemed to take a deep breath as one. "This childish accusation," Fugaku said stiffly, "has poisoned the Uchiha clan's good name." When that garnered nothing but a steady stare, he prompted; "What would you have me do to prove our innocence?"

Sarutobi Hiruzen gave a thin, tired smile that implied there was little that the Uchiha could do, or that they would not like the options. "Find the masked man," he said delicately, skirting around his obvious skepticism of Mikoto's un-collaborated story. "Convince the other clans that the Uchiha were not at fault." His eyes moved to Mikoto alone. "Persuade Jiraiya to give up his legal claim to guardianship."

She pressed her lips shut to keep from gaping at the unfairness there. Jiraiya was long gone from the village, and didn't look to be returning any time soon. It seemed that the Hokage had appointed himself Jiraiya's spokesperson, and he was clearly immune to her persuasion. Becoming the twins' sole guardian seemed all but impossible. Nor would she want to wrest Jiraiya's honorary parenthood away, even if she thought she could cow him or his mentor. However ill-suited he was to childcare, the twins were all he had left of Minato-san. She couldn't do that to him.

"Very well," Fugaku said stiffly, acknowledging the demands without agreeing. "Please excuse my wife and I, Hokage-sama." He gave a faultlessly proper bow that Mikoto echoed dully, though the move was not as deep and deferential as it would have been on another occasion.

Etiquette demanded that she echo the farewell, but Mikoto kept her lips together and merely gave the Hokage a baleful stare before she turned to follow her husband away.

A chill raised the tiny hairs at the back of Mikoto's neck as she truly considered, for the first time, what the Sandaime's stress and suspicions might lead him to suspect of her in particular. As she was the only surviving witness…

It didn't look good for her argument that the Uchiha had been uninvolved.

The fact that she had been spared was puzzling even to Mikoto, however. That unfortunately meant that she couldn't explain it. Kushina had made it out of that room because the masked man had needed to trick her into the open where the Nine-Tailed fox could be released. Perhaps Mikoto had been spared as a smokescreen against his true intentions? Or… had her salvation been in the fact that she was holding the other infant?

Mikoto tried not to let her doubt and confusion show on her face. She wouldn't have killed a woman holding in infant unless there was no other choice, but she had seen that masked man hold a kunai to an infant. Surely he didn't possess such sentimentality and reserve.

'He called Naruto-kun 'it',' Mikoto remembered. 'He had already rationalized that Naruto-kun was a tool for him to use. If he had really intended to kill Naruto-kun, he would be dead.' She shuddered. She hadn't considered it before, but the masked man must have been gentle and conscientious of the burden in his arms in order to avoid harming a newborn while engaged in a fight against the babe's father.

The theory that a soft spot for babies had saved her life was looking a little more likely. That didn't change the fact that the most obvious explanation, to the Sandaime at least, was that the masked man had spared her because she was the clan head's wife.

Being the Uchiha clan head's wife apparently carried much less currency than it had a week prior, however. It was positively unheard of for a custody dispute like this. When Mikoto managed to calm her breathing, she almost couldn't believe what had just happened.

This wasn't the Hokage unfairly refusing her good claim. This was the Hokage illegally retracting the guardianship that she had possessed the moment that Minato and Kushina had passed on. She knew her husband wasn't going to take this well. The Uchiha had fallen far indeed when they didn't receive the legal protection offered to other citizens.

Her heart sunk low even as she arrived home and took solace in cuddling Sasuke and breathing in his sweet baby scent. The situation seemed grim, but she wasn't giving up. This wasn't over. It didn't matter if the Hokage disagreed: she wouldn't leave those children alone, even if she couldn't take them in. There had to be something else she could do.

Chapter Text

Aiko didn't like to think about those early days of blearily drifting in and out of consciousness, realizing that the world was a blur of strange colors and smells and feelings that she couldn't properly interpret.

First of all, it was strange and frightening that she could remember it at all. She certainly shouldn't. At three years old, she was discerning enough to know that she was a complete freak and just savvy enough to keep her lips sealed shut instead of babbling even though some part of her realllly wanted to impress the grownups she knew. It would be satisfying to impress her caretakers and the other adults she saw, and maybe get special treatment. But in the long run? It felt like a terrible idea.

'For me and for Naruto. What would happen if I got taken away? No one cares about him.'

"Hey! Heyyyyyy," Naruto whined, tugging on her foot. He was sitting with his legs spread wide on the floor and staring beseechingly up at where she was perched on the bed. "What doing?"

She did her best not to grimace, both at the grammar and at the way that the toddler guilelessly rubbed his fist against his runny nose and then onto his shirt.

It wasn't his fault, really, that he was a comparatively normal child. When the fact that he was a jinchuuriki was taken into question, that fact took on an alarming pallor.

'I don't even like kids,' she thought resentfully, for the nth time. 'It's not fair.'

"I'm looking at pic-tures," Aiko said carefully to minimize the way her clumsy tongue stumbled over harder syllables. She turned the glossy children's book –an encyclopedia of sea creatures thinly guised as a story—in her hands to show her otouto. "Would you like to see?" She clumsily patted the cushion next to her, carefully avoiding looking at her stubby fingers. She already knew they looked like fat sausages without watching. Naruto made a face, but climbed up beside her, using another pillow as a step-stool and nearly slipping.

'I hate this pathetic body,' Aiko thought dully, turning the book back to the first page. 'It can't do anything right.'

Granted, she suspected that the flesh bag she was currently interred in was of vastly superior quality to her old one. The comparison was probably like a new Camaro and a fifteen year old Grand Am. They were both technically cars, and they looked fine at first scrutiny. But no matter how great her three-year-old flesh bag was for such a small sack of meat, it was still the body of a young child. It tired easily and needed rest often. Her fingers were fat and clumsy, and she had a hard time utilizing fine motor skills for things like coloring.

Her otouto wiggled beside her, making a strange high-pitched 'eeeeee' sound for no apparent reason. When that garnered no reaction but a tilted head, he huffed loudly and bounced, shaking the bed. "What's the story?" Naruto demanded bossily, prodding the book with an outstretched finger. When he grabbed for the pages, she pulled it away.

"There's not really a story," Aiko demurred, trying to keep the sigh out of her voice. There were picture books with words she could guess at, yes, but she wasn't going to touch those until it was well and age-appropriate for her to do so. She was bored out of her gourd, but it wasn't worth the risk.

At least not until she knew what was going on well enough to gauge the risks of gaining adult attention, anyway. She didn't know much about how ninjas trained or dealt with prodigy children, but she didn't think it was anything she would like to experience.

For the first few weeks or months, she'd thought that she was completely insane. To be fair, an infant had a horrendously poor grip on reality. She hadn't been able to see well, struggled to stay awake for very long, and she certainly hadn't understood anything that was being said. It had seemed like a waking dream when she had first made the connection between her current existence and a half-remembered television show that she had apparently never finished watching. Pity. She really couldn't have predicted that would become relevant to her survival and lifestyle.

Naruto was simultaneously the reason she questioned her sanity and the one consistent source of human interaction that was keeping her from going absolutely insane. She needed him.

Naruto made a rude sound that implied he wasn't going to accept the answer that there was no story. Fair enough.

She glanced around futilely, as if to be sure she was alone. The beautiful dark-eyed lady who volunteered at the orphanage and had them call her 'aunt' was nowhere to be seen. She had probably left for the day—Aiko was relatively sure that the woman had children of her own to tend to.

That didn't mean the twins were alone. She didn't see one often, but there was at least one ANBU who followed them around.

Well. She'd just have to speak slowly and try to keep her diction to something believable.

"This fish is named Marlin," Aiko said quietly, pointing out an illustrated koi. That wasn't the right type of fish at all, but it wasn't as if Naruto would know the difference. "He's scared of everything. Like this shark," Aiko pointed as she turned the next page. The blue-green color of the water in the books was like her eyes. The sky was like Naruto's. They looked nice together. "And he's scared of this walrus, too," she improvised. That wasn't in the right story, but there weren't any sea turtles in this book. She'd have to make do. There was in fact a barracuda, but she wasn't going to tell her little brother a grim story about a mother being murdered.

"Why?" Naruto breathed, staring, transfixed at the glossy images.

"Well, bigger fish are dangerous," she said practically. "And sharks eat fish." She couldn't hold back the grin at the disgusted face Naruto made and the way he buried his face in his hands and shook his head.

"Nuh-uh," he rejected. The words were a direct contrast to the fascinated glee on his face. His big blue eyes practically glittered.

She knew what was coming, but Aiko still waited to hear it with amused fondness.

"Tell me more."


"Our great village was founded…"

Her civilian teacher's voice was a comforting drone seeping in one ear and out the other. Aiko wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to a thing that the man said.

There was no need to, really. History wasn't going to help her much. Besides, the propaganda lightly dashed with facts that he was sharing would be repeated in other classes, she was sure. As they grew older they would probably get the party line reinforced, peppered with darker inclusions as they became age appropriate.

Or what counted for age appropriate in a shinobi village, in any case. Half of the picture books back at the orphanage included references to violence, indexes and identification games of weapons, and casual mention of death that was doubtless meant to serve as a reference for appropriate grieving behaviors. The other half were perfectly standard, trite works with cute animals and pretty children with two loving parents and an extended family who taught them various lessons.

(Aiko had no idea which sort was more harmful to Naruto. The sweet banal picture books of happy families filled him with a wistfulness that was painful to see, but watching as the darker texts normalized the shinobi lifestyle made her want to tear them all up).

"In the fiftieth year of the ninja, the great clans…"

Dull as dirt. No wonder that Naruto was nearly nodding off on his desk. That was probably a better use of time than listening, Aiko thought. It wasn't her plan for the day, however.

She was instead preoccupied with practicing her hiragana. Painstakingly, Aiko bit the tip of her tongue in concentration and tried not to let her hand wobble as she copied stilted and blotchy figures next to the perfect printed versions.

"Pay attention, class," came the light scolding from the head of the classroom. The boy beside Aiko jerked guiltily, but she didn't react.

The teacher didn't frighten her. What was he going to do? Really, the power that he used to maintain classroom control was all dependent on the fact that children hadn't yet realized just how little he could do to keep them in line. The psychological intimidation wasn't going to work on a girl who was 21-going-on-4, and the elderly civilian man who taught her homeroom class at school wasn't about to resort to physical intimidation.

The twins had only been attending civilian school for a few short months, but the routine was solid enough that Aiko was taken aback when a pretty Chuunin with a wide smile and a red bow in her hair came to pick them up and took them to Hokage tower.

Aiko pressed her lips together in a stern expression that she knew was uselessly cute on her pudgy, pink-cheeked face and strained her toes toward the floor. Her feet were dangling over the edge of the plastic waiting room chair that she was seated quietly on. By contrast, Naruto had climbed up on top of his and was talking at a mile a minute to an obviously disinterested secretary and a now overwhelmed Chuunin.

' I know that Naruto is supposed to be close to the Sandaime. I should have suspected that they would meet soon.'

She watched silently, remaining aloof from the conversation that followed when they were escorted into the Hokage's office. Naruto was outright thrilled, bouncing around with all the energy that a four-year old jinchuuriki could muster (and that was an impressive amount of energy, to be frank).

"And what do you think, Aiko-chan?" the old man attempted to bring her into the conversation.

Aiko blinked, taking a moment to steady herself. What did she think?

' I think that you're pathetic for taking advantage of a little boy's loneliness and culturally homogenous hero worship of you in order to coerce him into agreeing to a military career years before he's mentally and emotionally capable of making that decision.'

Nope, that probably wasn't the best idea.

' No, don't sign me up for shinobi training. I don't want to be a ninja. It seems scary. I'm not scared of dying at all because everyone does, but I don't see any reason to get involved in a violent caste system and kill people for a living.'

She was going to be a ninja whether she wanted to be or not. She was four years old; no one was going to let her make her own decisions, and it would be a waste not to at least attempt to put the fourth Hokage's kids through the shinobi Academy.

In the end, she just shrugged and regarded the old man with cool turquoise eyes.

He seemed fairly off-put by her lackluster reaction, but gracefully enough turned back to Naruto. The blonde was an eager conversationalist, if not a particularly creative or clever one.

Aiko wasn't surprised to find herself bundled off to the shinobi academy when a new term started a month later. She was a bit surprised to find out that the other first year students were six years old, but a moment's thought wrapped up that mystery. The term lengths meant that their classmates would graduate at the age of twelve, which fit with what she remembered. Theoretically she and Naruto should probably graduate at ten, then, except that it seemed likely that the Academy was actually being used as a babysitter in their case and not a device to crank out soldiers even earlier than usual.

Putting the twins in the Academy meant that she and Naruto were under a trained and trusted shinobi's attention for the bulk of the day. It probably freed up their ANBU stalker for more important work. Like shaving cats, or going home and licking their mirrors. Whatever. The point was that it had to be mind-numbingly dull to stare at toddlers all day.

Accordingly, Aiko didn't trust the kind-faced woman who was their first teacher at the Academy. She didn't understand the type of person who would agree to spend so much time around so many children that weren't hers: or at least, do so in order to teach them to kill. It was hard for Aiko to dismiss that as a strongly developed maternal instinct, assuming as she did that it would be damn hard to teach class after class of cannon fodder when the majority of them died a year after graduation. But Katade-sensei didn't seem to be the ice-old that Aiko thought was necessary to survive that type of heartbreak.

'There's something wrong with her. She would be doing field work if there wasn't.'

Even if Katade-sensei hadn't kept a wide berth from the twins, Aikowouldn't have had a thing to do with her.

At least Naruto was easy to figure out, although she admittedly had an advantage. He had simple desires, as did the other carpet sharks in the Academy class. He wanted to play (and couldn't understand why no one played with him after they had talked with their parents) and he wanted to eat too much sugar (until he threw up, at which point he would try again) and he most certainly did not want to do his homework because it was legitimately too hard for him and he cried when he failed all his assignments.

Aiko spent two years with the smiling woman who taught very small children, and didn't understand her any more at the end than she had when she was four. Katade-sensei was a blank wall, even if her voice was kind.

Maybe it was a shinobi thing? Or maybe… Aiko frowned, rubbing her fingers against her copper-toned hair, ignoring the fact that it was slightly grubby from the outdoor part of class where they had practiced falls and done agility work. Maybe it was just something that some people could turn on and off. A figurative mask that kept the outside world from peeking underneath to what really mattered.

Funny that it took her so long to figure out that she had anything in common with sensei. Aiko's secrets were probably much bigger. She stuck by that opinion, even when Katade-sensei became increasingly thin, grey, and harried. One day she simply never returned to class.

She eyed the nervous young man who had replaced Katade-sensei with tired resignation.

"Ohayo, class," he forced out with a pathetic imitation of confidence. The following smile looked more than a bit queasy. "I'll be your teacher from now on. My name is Umino Iruka. Any questions?"

He fielded several queries about his hair, where sensei was, and if he had a girlfriend, before Iruka-sensei called on Aiko. His expression was guarded and a bit uncomfortable. She thought she knew why—she was sitting right next to Naruto. Iruka-sensei probably didn't know what to think.

"Is Katade-sensei dead?"

Aiko knew her blunt guess was true by the way that Iruka gaped at her. She settled back in her chair and shook her head. "Never mind," she said mildly, without care for the way that Hyuuga Neji's eyes narrowed at her or that an Akimichi girl with rosy cheeks looked about to burst into tears.

She didn't pay much attention to the rest of proceedings—roll call, syllabus, and other dull minutia. Her curiosity was satisfied.

'She's not really real anyways.'

"Hey," Naruto hissed, leaning over the space between them. The girl in front swiveled to give them both a dirty look, obviously confused by her inability to understand what the boy was saying.

Aiko gave the girl a dry, steady look until she turned around. Then she blinked at her otouto and replied likewise, in English. "What's up?"

"Why did you ask that?" Naruto's brow furrowed. "and do you think Iruka-sensei will be nicer than the last lady?"

"De- You there!" Iruka-sensei barked, sounding firm and scary for the first time. It only took him a moment to stride on long legs to the back of the classroom where the Uzumaki twins were sitting. He had eyes only for Naruto—angry brown eyes, specifically, and tense hands that clapped down on Naruto's desk as the teenager loomed. "Why would you think it was acceptable to talk in my classroom?"

Naruto's big blue eyes wavered in shock and hurt as he sank back into his chair, fighting off tears. Aiko inhaled steadily through her nose, gritted her jaw together painfully, and stared at Iruka-sensei with feelings that were less than pleasant. If he'd been asked to describe her eyes at the moment, he might have said that she looked like she thought he was trash on her shoe. It didn't matter. He wasn't looking at her.

"I would say not," Aiko said steadily into the sudden hush as Iruka glowered, waiting for an answer from a small child. She hadn't pegged him for a bully. It was a shame.

She ignored the bout of confused expressions at the use of a foreign language and carefully got out her favorite pencil, turning to the middle of her notebook and going back to practicing kanji. She didn't feel any need to clarify or explain herself. English was her first language, after all, and she had made it Naruto's as well. It wasn't as if anyone else had been lining up to teach him language skills and she had needed someone to talk to.

A strange person was vying for that, actually. When the new term had rolled around with a new class of six-year-olds, a great deal of them had been very familiar. Chibi Sasuke was the oddest of all, because he was such a friendly little thing.

If she didn't know better, she would say that he'd been pressured by his parents to befriend them. Unfortunately for the possibility of Uchiha-Uzumaki friendship, the brunet had shown Naruto up in aerial weaponry skills and classroom knowledge from the first week. Naruto was too embarrassed, jealous and resentful to accept Sasuke's clumsy overtures, and Sasuke was too guileless to understand that he would have better results if he made sure not to make Naruto feel inadequate.

It took him a while to attempt approaching her. Perhaps it was some little-boy instinct to try other boys before girls. It could just as easily have been that Aiko wasn't particularly approachable.

"Uzumaki-san?"

Itty bitty Sasuke had a bit of a lisp, she noted. That was unfairly cute.

"Would you like to share my bento?" He held the box out awkwardly, over-large baby eyes fixed studiously on the point between her eyes, as if he'd been taught to make eye contact was wasn't comfortable with it yet. "My mom makes a lot, and I just…" Sasuke trailed off, and dug at the floor with a sandal despite his attempts to look grownup.

"Thank you for the offer. I have my own lunch, though."

She left him standing there mildly flustered and pink, as if he didn't have a set response for someone being that rude. Yeah, he was an adorable kid, but he was just that: a kid. Naruto was all the kid she needed in her life, thank you very much. She wasn't a babysitter and it sounded absolutely exhausting to dumb herself down to a child's level in personal interactions as well as those she already had to perform for adults.

Despite her resolution to stay away, her eyes drifted over to Sasuke while Naruto was still scrambling to find his left shoe so they could leave for the day. The brunet all but ran to a woman in a gorgeous kimono with long dark hair whipping gently in the wind. Aiko watched for longer than was probably polite, but she never saw the woman who was probably Sasuke's mother turn around enough to get a clear look at her face.

Pity. She seemed oddly familiar. Maybe it was her hair—it was unfairly beautiful.

Chapter Text

Point of view: Hound

Naruto was crying, great hiccupping sobs shaking his tiny shoulders. Hound cringed a little and skittered backwards. For the first time he found himself falling back on one of Minato-sensei's mannerisms—he fluttered his hands uncertainly, not knowing what to do with them.

He wanted- he wanted the crying to stop, both because the noise was horrendous and because there was no need for Naruto to be sad.

'He's six,' Kakashi thought incredulously. 'Why would such a little thing upset him so? When I was six…'

Granted, when he was six, he was already a shinobi and had fought for his life. Perhaps the comparison was invalid. Still… He didn't know quite what to do about a child breaking down into tears over being snubbed by a prospective friend's parent.

It had been more than unfair. Naruto had been happily chasing a brunette girl with trailing pigtails across the playground when the girl's mother had snapped to attention, noticed her child's playmate, and barked out that they were going home. Naruto had watched the confused exodus with a blank expression that told Hound and any other discerning observers that the boy understood he had just been deemed an unsuitable playmate. And why not? It wasn't the first time.

The blond had turned and headed home without another word, clumsily unlocking the door to the apartment he shared with his sister using the key hanging around his neck. He had then proceeded to crawl onto the couch and bawl his eyes out.

Hound caught himself wishing that Aiko hadn't chosen today to haunt the library, so that she could comfort her twin. She seemed to be the comparatively logical one, reserved and quiet. Had he only seen her in public he would have thought she was a stone-faced little girl, but she was considerably different around Naruto. Fond and –indulgent, perhaps?

He licked the inside of his lips, feeling vaguely guilty for being such a sub-par human being that he would rely on the parenting expertise of a six year old girl.

But what else could he do? Hound couldn't do a thing himself, even if he were allowed to show himself to Naruto. He didn't have the social skills. The only children he'd ever dealt with were… were…

Hound backed out of the apartment without alerting the child that he had ever been there and rushed through a familiar series of handsigns in the hallway. A moment later, Pakkun, the proud new father of a litter of five puppies, blinked up at him.

His request was wordless and nearly instantaneous, a combination of handsigns and pleading body language.

Severely unimpressed, the pug raised one ear and tilted his head. "Not now, pup," Pakkun said lowly. "I'd call Bisuke, if I were you. He's good with puppies, and he won't accidentally shout out if someone pulls his tail or pets his fur the wrong way."

"Right," Kakashi said quietly, acknowledging the logic there. "Thank you, Pakkun."

The pug nodded, hesitating. After a moment, he sighed. "I wouldn't mind playing with them when I'm not so busy," he admitted balefully. "I do love puppies."

Hound shook his head. "I think this is a one-time deal."

With that, he released the summoning and called upon the right dog. Forty seconds later, Naruto's head shot up at the sound of scratching against the door. He sniffled, giving it a suspicious stare. After a few moments of continued scratching and quiet whines, the boy hauled himself up and answered the door.

Bisuke bowled him over with gentle enthusiasm, licking the salt off his face and nuzzling. Naruto gave a surprised giggle.

Hound nearly smiled under his cold mask as the boys rolled around on the floor and wrestled. There, he'd problem-solved without a six-year old's help.

And this was supposed to be the relaxing mission, a break from real ANBU work. Ha. Protection detail was far more stressful than anything he did outside the village, in some ways. He was good at hurting people. Keeping them safe was a personal weakness.

When the older twin came home, Bisuke's ears pricked to attention. Hound silently dismissed ANBU Crow. The boy nodded and left. There was no need for two watchers now that the twins were in the same place.

"Tadaima," Aiko called, shucking her shoes messily. When she received no answer the girl padded around the couch—and her posture instantly relaxed at the sight of Naruto sleeping peacefully, using a vicious nin-dog as a pillow. She bit her lower lip in thought for a moment before cautiously approaching the hound. At the gracious nod Bisuke gave her (like a queen acknowledging a subject, Hound noted in irritation) the little girl dropped to her knees and all but fell over herself to scratch behind the dog's ears and rub at his back.

Oddly, Hound was disappointed with the twin he'd thought was more perceptive. She should be more suspicious than that of a large animal wearing a vest in her home.

Well, they were just children, even if he deluded himself into thinking that there was something strangely knowing about the way she looked at his ninken before she grinned at the dog. They couldn't be expected to connect all the dots.


Aiko didn't much like taijutsu practice at the Academy when it was finally started in earnest- by which she meant supervised spars using the katas they had been taught. Iruka-sensei and his assistant Mizuki-sensei did a passable job of making sure that no one got hurt while learning to kill. There was a thrill in realizing that her body was so much better than she thought it was, that she could bend back to put her palms on the ground and then lift her feet up without doing more than shaking if she really worked at it. It was an enormous relief to start feeling less like she was trapped in a sub-par body and more like she was capable and strong. Those aspects were really enjoyable, even though her sparring partner sucked. Hyuuga Neji was a little monster, and he beat her with embarrassing ease every time they fought.

Once she managed to pull her attention away from her own problems, Aiko discovered that Naruto had his own issues with taijutsu practice. Finding out that Iruka's growing discomfort and confusion about how to relate to Naruto meant that he got less attention than he should was displeasing. To be fair to the Chuunin teachers, everything that they told the twins was correct, and they wouldn't let either of them move on in the material before it had been mastered. So it was clear that no one was trying to allow unprepared genin to graduate and get themselves killed.

It was still insidiously harmful that Naruto was almost always the last one picked, and his sessions were often cut off by the bell for the next activity. The consistently shaved times in conjunction with Naruto's less mature body (now seven years old to their peers' nine) was a formidable handicap.

'He has plenty of time to work out the kinks in his taijutsu,' Aiko reminded herself as they trudged home, reaching out to take Naruto's grubby fingers into hers. He tolerated the touch absently, kicking and glaring at a rock that seemed generally inoffensive to her. 'In the anime, he gets held back twice. The Hokage must know better than to let a ten year old graduate. In a way, he did us a favor by giving us extra time to learn.'

Trying to look on the bright side didn't always help, but it didn't hurt to hope that not everyone was either incompetent or malicious. Still, Aiko privately thought that she would do a much better job with the really important village administration efforts if she were the one in charge. Like keeping the jinchuuriki safe and stable, for example.

She was thankful that Naruto was a social, fluttering personality. Right now it caused him hurt because their peers had either been warned off of them or didn't want to play with the babies of the class, but at least it meant that he didn't constantly cling to her. Aiko loved Naruto dearly, and would gladly bash Mizuki's head in with a brick to defend his honor if she thought she could get away with it. That didn't mean she never got tired of spending time with him. She liked being with Naruto, but it felt like she was one of those tacky pez dispensers: Naruto took a little bit out of her every time they interacted. That was fine, that was what she was there for—but eventually she was empty and in need of time away from him to refill.

It felt like she was his mother, not his sister. They had been moved out of the orphanage and into an apartment with an attentive landlady and a cook who came by once a day when they had been entered into the Academy, but the rest of the parenting was all up to Aiko to teach or Naruto to figure out on his own. She could handle a lot of it—homework, making sure he was properly fed and dressed—but there were areas in which she just couldn't help. How could she possibly teach a little boy to relate to other people? Aiko couldn't relate to adults because they condescended to her, and she couldn't relate to children her apparent age because they had nothing in common intellectually.

He was doing something right, because he'd gone and made friends with a pretty teenager whose father plied Naruto with ramen when he came to visit.

"Are you coming?"

Naruto practically hovered at the apartment door the moment it turned six—the time that Ayame-san started her shift at the ramen stand.

"Sure, sure," Aiko sighed agreeably, gathering up Naruto's homework into a backpack. Now, where had she left her library text about the cultural history of the northern regions of Fire Country…

Her otouto scowled helplessly, but took the bag she foisted on him in silent agreement to complete his assignments while his friend was preoccupied with customers. She didn't bother restraining the laugh at his morose expression.

"Cheer up," Aiko taunted, raising an eyebrow and tilting her head slightly. "It won't take that long to finish your work, and then Ayame-san will know you're as smart as you are cute."

Naruto flushed a deeply amusing shade of vibrant pink. "Nee-chan!" he squawked indignantly, hugging his bag to his tummy. "Ayame-chan is really old! And I'm not cute, so there." The little stomp he gave was startlingly unconvincing.

Unwillingly, Aiko's face twisted into a pout and her eyes softened.

Her brother flinched, knowing what that expression meant. "Aikoooo," he whined, backing up cautiously. "Don't look at me like that."

"Too late!" She leapt at him, bringing him down to the floor in a tumble of warm skin and giggles and little boy legs kicking futilely. "You're sooo cute," Aiko crooned, scrunching up her nose.

His replying, "Am not!" was cut off by the loud shriek of surprise he gave when Aiko hauled herself up enough to start planting kisses on his forehead and cheeks.

She didn't really even know what she was saying—it was just a babble of baby talk along the lines of, 'who's the cutest? You are! You are!' in-between artificially noisy "muah" sound effects as she peppered his face.

"Nee-channn," Naruto wailed when he finally gave up, legs stilling. "You're embarrassing. We're at home alone and you're still embarrassing."

"I have to get my kicks somewhere," Aiko said practically, ruffling his hair one last time. "Now get up, you look a mess and you have a hot date with Ayame-san."

He just made a high-pitched whine and stomped away, ears flushed a hot red.


The twins' fifth year in the Academy was remarkable for a few reasons. They had been taking classes with the age group Aiko recognized as the bulk of the rookie 12 for two years. Aiko found eight year olds slightly less contemptibly dull than six year olds, but not by enough to spend her free time with them.

Naruto, on the other hand, had formed a lazy sort of camaraderie with Nara Shikamaru and Inuzuka Kiba. It wasn't good for his attendance record or his grades, but it was good for his mood. They began skipping classes on a weekly basis, sneaking in before the final bell smelling of ramen or barbeque.

Aiko highly doubted that the other two were fooling the clan members that came to walk them home from classes, but she didn't much care either. She had considered trying to straighten Naruto out into a conscientious student, but had been halted by a bout of apathy. Why? What was the point? He got very little out of the structured classes. She wouldn't be surprised if he was dyslexic—he could read, but he complained that it gave him headaches and that the squiggles wouldn't stay still.

Those complaints seemed to generally be dismissed as an attempt to squirrel out of book work by Mizuki and several of the specialized teachers. Iruka-sensei had given lectures to that effect for a while until he seemed to clue in. Their primary teacher had tried, to give him credit. He had taken Naruto to a medical appointment with a medic-nin, and then to a specialized civilian sector optometrist when the first testing didn't reveal any abnormalities.

It was a pity that neither specialist could figure out what was wrong, but at least Iruka-sensei believed Naruto that something was genuinely affecting his ability to participate in classroom learning. Aiko considered speaking up—but how? It wasn't like she knew anything about how dyslexia worked, or even if that was a medical problem that modern medicine was aware of.

It was stupid to waste time mapping out complicated math problems to figure out projectile trajectory or how much blood was lost per second for different wounds. No one was going to do that math in the field. Practice and experience were what mattered. Naruto would flourish there.

' At least Iruka-sensei warmed up to Naruto.'

Aiko tried not to smile the first time that he showed up at their apartment with bags of takeout, clearly worried that Naruto was surviving on ramen and optimism. Iruka-sensei was mildly flabbergasted to see that the one-bedroom that the twins shared was in fact well-stocked and relatively clean.

To be fair, the fund that was provided for them to live off of was less than impressive and would have been hard to stretch enough. But there were clearly adults interested in the twins' welfare, even if they didn't want to meet them. The Hokage was certain to keep a careful eye on the state of the twins' equipment and get them new clothing at the changes of season, and two different parties left care packages.

It wasn't hard to piece together that the food that mysteriously made its way to the doorstep or kitchen table was from different people. The things that ended up on their kitchen table were always homemade and prettily wrapped, and the woman (Aiko was sure it was a woman, there was a faint trace of perfume that was so familiar) that left it had a habit of doing their dishes. In contrast, every so often, a disheveled and confused jumble of odds and ends that all but screamed 'bachelor' was left on their doorstop with toothmarks on the battered basket it was delivered in.

Iruka coughed, shifting his feet in the genkan and not bothering to disguise his examination of their living space. "It's nice?" he tried.

It wasn't particularly nice. The twins all but lived in a shoebox, as far as Aiko was concerned. It was hellishly small for someone who liked to pace. But that seemed to be a trait shared by Konoha's architecture and not a snub against the twins themselves.

"Food!" Naruto shot out of the bathroom, banging into the wall as he went. He cheerfully flung himself at Iruka without care for the fact that his bare feet inadvertently kicked the bag the man was holding.

"Oof-" Iruka choked, attempting to wrap his arms around the boy, and failing because Naruto had already slipped away and shoved his head inside the plastic bag.

"You would think he never got fed," Aiko remarked blandly, unimpressed by Naruto's enthusiasm. There was no point in getting worked up about it. She had learned the hard way that there was no changing the fact that he had ten times the energy and enthusiasm that she did. Naruto didn't harm anything or mean to be rude.

"I was starting to wonder," Iruka said doubtfully as Naruto absconded to the kitchen with the meal and began pulling open drawers and flinging serving spoons and chopsticks onto the table.

Any response she might have made was cut off by sudden angry sirens. Iruka tensed and all but shot to the door, securing it with a series of handsigns that Aiko couldn't see, much less list off.

"What's going on, Iruka-sensei!" Naruto half-demanded, excitement warring with discomfort from the godawful noise. He had clapped his hands to his head at the same time Aiko did.

"Lockdown," Iruka said grimly, pacing through the apartment. "Everyone under Jounin is confined to the closest safe location. What windows do you have?" He sealed the window in their bedroom with the same handsigns, and the three had a tense dinner. The audible alerts cycled through several pitches and patterns while Iruka maintained a forced calm. The last one seemed to be some sort of all-clear, because the tenseness in Iruka's shoulders fled and he unsealed the door and windows so that the twins didn't hurt themselves by getting too close to them.

"I need to go see if I can help," Iruka explained at the door, ruffling Naruto's hair. The blond scowled at him. The teacher's eyes softened, and he bent to give Naruto a hug. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. The danger is passed. I will see you two in the morning, right?" Iruka made an awkward, aborted motion towards Aiko as if only realizing that he might hurt one child's feelings by paying more attention to the other. He stopped at her expression, and only gave a wave.

"Have a good night, sensei," Aiko said absently as she closed the door.

They were never told what had happened, per se. But the Academy was noticeably depleted in its supply of dark-haired little boys and girls the next morning. Only one of them came back. When that finally happened, Sasuke was grim-faced and a far cry from the cheerful little boy he had been a week before. He decimated his usual training partners Kiba and Hinata in every match with enough viciousness that Aiko was rather glad she'd started official taijutsu training a year before and been paired with Neji, even if he wiped the floor with her and sent her to the hospital the first time they fought.

The homemade care packages stopped coming. Aiko tried very hard not to think about what that meant, but she had dreams of silky black hair and her 'aunt' from the orphanage for weeks.


Aiko started to feel like she had less and less free time for Naruto as their sixth school year slipped by. It had been a long time since her disastrous first match with Neji and the painful, equally bad matches that followed it.

Out of sheer self-preservation and not genuine desire to improve, Aiko had begun to haunt the Academy training grounds and work on her own for hours every day. Practicing alone wasn't optimal, but it was better than nothing. (Although she desperately wished that one of the other students in their cohort would undergo a sudden increase in abilities that got them reassigned as Neji's partner. Wasn't Lee supposed to be good at taijutsu?)

She was finally starting to get to a point where she could nearly compete with Neji. It might have partly been that she'd hit a growth spurt—she was almost ten to his eleven, and had a good two inches on him. That made it harder for him to keep her at distance. She had to remind herself that it wasn't an advantage she could count on—she'd be smaller than practically any other opponent out of the Academy. He was still stronger than she was, but Aiko had managed to improve both her speed and her blocks to the point where he almost never landed a hit on her.

Of course, she couldn't get a hit on him either, which led to painfully long and boring spars until Iruka-sensei inevitably called the match in Neji's favor.

'At least I only get bruises on my forearms and fists now', she consoled herself one morning after the initial spar of the day, running her cool-down laps around the short track. It was a visible improvement on the mottled look she used to sport daily. Naruto sped by, closely followed by—was that Ino? She looked pretty pissed about something.

From his position a few feet in front of her, Sasuke stiffened, then deliberately pushed his pace so that the more enthusiastic students didn't lap him. Aiko felt her eye twitch in exasperation. "A cool-down isn't a competition, 'ttebane!" she shouted, knowing damn well he didn't hear her.

What she heard in response was a quiet huffing behind her. Aiko blinked and drifted to one side, twisting her head to see who was coming up behind her. "Oh hi, Hinata-chan." She flashed a toothy grin.

God, that kid was cute. Her classmates almost looked like people at this age instead of dolls, which made it easier to talk to them.

Hinata's porcelain pale skin flushed a little, and she drew her arms closer to her body. She didn't slow down or avert her eyes, however. "Ah, hello, Aiko-san." She visibly hesitated. "You did well in your spar today," Hinata added meekly.

"Thank you, that's very nice of you to say. I saw part of yours too. Your foot work is really good," she praised. 'Hinata was always lacking in confidence, right?' "Is Sakura-san a nice partner to have?"

Hinata nodded, looking more comfortable when she wasn't the topic. "Haruno-san is getting better every day. I am glad to work with her."

Aiko bit her lower lip, considering a sudden thought. "Hey, Hinata-chan? Would you like to practice with me after class today?"

It could help her a lot to be able to practice against someone with training like Neji's…

The other girl blinked rapidly, clearly surprised. "Ah..." Hinata looked down. "I'm expected at home," she mumbled.

"That's fine!" Awkwardly, Aiko tried to give her a smile. It didn't seem to do what she intended- Hinato looked embarrassed and uncomfortable, not soothed.

'Well, I tried. Is it me she doesn't want anything to do with, or is she really just too busy?'

She decided she didn't want to know. Her gut was telling her that Hinata would have suggested another time if she hadn't just been looking for an excuse not to spend time with her.

' She probably doesn't want to help me against her cousin.'

The conversation died off, but after that Aiko started to notice just how much Hinata watched her when she sparred with Neji. Now that she knew to look, it was easy to see that Hinata's attention often wandered. When it did, she pushed Sakura harder—almost as if she thought she was the one fighting Neji. Aiko didn't say anything. Naruto was her only supplementary sparring partner. At least he was enthusiastic and good-natured, if not as technically skilled as Neji.

October came and went- she and Naruto spent their birthday alone at home, despite the minor festival going on outside.

She never actually beat Neji, but she was getting to a point where the blows that landed on his forearms (he was scary good at blocking) actually seemed to do something more than glance off. She could tell because his expression would tighten and he'd do his level best to beat the absolute crap out of her after she hit him. Naruto finally noticed her growth spurt, and was righteously furious that he didn't have one to match. He determinedly ate vegetables for a full week before quitting when he saw no improvement.

One Friday, she was idly rewriting the Lord of the Rings (in decidedly more pedestrian language, because she was certainly not a linguist or real author and had probably forgotten tons of stuff and made up almost as much) while pretending to take notes when Iruka announced he would be handing out the information sheets for potential graduates. When she got one, Aiko snorted and tried to hand it back. "Ano, sensei, there's been a mistake." He didn't take it.

"No, there hasn't," he said calmly. "You will be graduating this semester." He leaned in closely and gave her a stern expression. "All your teachers know you will be ready to graduate. Don't fail intentionally to stay with your brother. You're ready to move on, and he isn't. You won't do either of you any favors by flunking the year." Then he moved on to the next row, leaving her almost completely stunned.

'They tricked me when they put me against Neji,' she registered far too late. 'They tricked me into working harder than I should to get held back without realizing it.'

To be fair, it had never occurred to her that she would have to make sure she was held back. Sure, she was almost at the end of a standard term, but since she and Naruto had started so early, she'd really thought they would graduate with their age mates…

She looked up and it finally registered that Naruto was staring at her, as were several other students. Overall, the exchange seemed to have gone unnoticed. Instead of looking at it, Aiko shuffled the paper under her notebook and bent down again, trying to look engrossed.

It had honestly never occurred to her that she would be separated from Naruto. They entered the Academy the same year, after all. And he would graduate with his age group.. in… the… manga.

If it wouldn't have looked strange, she would have taken that opportunity to bang her head against the desk. 'Stupid, stupid! What happens to Naruto in the manga means nothing about you!'

Naruto gave her weak congratulations that night and fled to sleep on the couch. Aiko stayed up late, too busy thinking to fall asleep. Maybe she should take the opportunity- did she even have a choice, anyway? If she intentionally held herself back… well, she became one of Konoha's military resources when she entered the Academy, and the Hokage was her legal guardian.

So no. She didn't have a choice. If she tried to fail, she would just get reported for sabotaging military resources (a proviso usually used to force alcoholics to slow down or get sneakier).

With that in mind, she dutifully practiced the E-ranked jutsu the Academy had taught in the last month. Aside from the three she'd known about –Kawarimi, Henge, and the Clone- she'd also managed to master the finger-spark jutsu (used for burning paper evidence or lighting cigarettes) and managed to manifest one chakra string of an inch's length that could grab light objects.

She'd wondered why the manga had never shown these, but then the answer seemed obvious.

Sakura was competent but wouldn't have pushed for extra non-book work, Sasuke had better fire jutsu and used wires for that purpose, and Naruto… well, he'd barely mastered the three essentials (or a close approximation of them, anyway). Over the next week, she mercilessly drilled herself until she could replicate clothes down to the direction of a weave and switch with objects she couldn't even see.

Just as predicted, she easily breezed through the graduation exam- she led a team of first-years through a new obstacle course, dispelled a genjutsu, showed off her basic three jutsu in a low-pressure environment, and completed a three minute spar against Mizuki while Iruka took notes. When she landed a real hit, she was absolutely shocked by what a genius Neji must be. She took the opportunity to land several painful hits on Mizuki, but was eventually taken down into a panting mess. She was satisfied, though- she got extra points for thinking to use kawarimi in a mock combat session. It was a little unsporting, but 'unsportsmanlike' was practically a compliment to ninja. The kunai, shuriken, and paper tests weren't really even worth speaking about… they were embarrassingly easy.

She received her headband, one on the standard blue fabric.

Aiko found something vaguely disturbing about a ten year old in the standard military color. That night, she painstakingly scrubbed it with sand to dull the shine and pulled the stitches keeping it on the band. She cut up the bodice of a yellow dress that didn't fit anymore to make a new headband and secured it, playing with angles to find out how she wanted to wear it.

It felt strange on her forehead and she looked silly with it hanging around her neck. She liked it as a belt and a headband, so when she left the next morning she was wearing it around her waist and a jerry-rigged headband to match.

'I feel vaguely like batman,' she thought, checking herself out in the bathroom mirror. There was something strangely satisfying about her new look. She'd slipped into slim-fitting black pants that reached just below her knees and a short-sleeved tunic in the same color that reached halfway down her thighs.

She tugged at her leaf insignia. 'This is a pretty poor utility belt, though.' She momentarily amused herself by imaging pulling a gigantic batarang out of it… then she realized that with the use of seals that could be done. She could make her forehead protector into a small arsenal. The thought amused her. Then she took off the headband and ran her fingers through her hair, frowning at the length.

Her hair never failed to garner odd looks and some comments from her peers- despite what looked like a plausible (if a bit rare) color to her, strawberry blonde hair apparently wasn't a thing here. It wasn't very long—it only reached a few inches past her collarbones. 'Still… I don't look like a real shinobi. I look like a little girl playing dress up.' That in mind, she carefully but inexpertly hacked at it with a kunai, letting hairs pile up in the sink. She cut it as short as Naruto's in the back, with bangs that fell just above her eyes, but left herself chin-length locks on either side of her face… Mostly because she didn't want to look like a boy. She turned around, experimentally tossing her hair. It looked like a very messy version of Hinata's hair at age twelve, she thought.

'Or Minato's,' she realized. Aiko frowned. 'That might be a little bit of a faux-pas… Well. Too late now.' She smiled at her reflection and pulled her headband back on. As she walked past her blue sandals sitting by the front door, she grimaced a little. 'I need to get some black sandals. I'm making a mental note- tonight, after I meet my team.' The thought sent exciting shivers up her spine. Aiko preoccupied herself in the kitchen. She was going to have her own team, like a real ninja. By the time Naruto had stumbled into the bathroom for the morning (and yelled something incoherent and vaguely accusatory about the mess in the sink) she had breakfast and was finishing arranging two bento.

"Whoa! Your hair!" Naruto wailed, skidding into the kitchen. "It was so pretty, Aiko-chaaaaan! What'd you do that for?"

Aiko turned to give him an amused look, pouring herself some hottea. She set it down on the table and walked off to the fridge. "Pretty, yes, but it wasn't practical. I'm a ninja now and I should look like one."

"There are ninjas with long hair," he argued. "I've seen them." She shut the fridge and slid the orange juice across the table to him. He took it sullenly and grabbed for his empty glass with his other hand.

"Yeah, but they're better ninja than I am." She pulled out her seat. "Having long hair is a sign of status, kind of. It's a declaration that you're good enough as a ninja to compensate for the disadvantages of possibly obscured vision and a hand-hold for enemies in close combat. I'm a fresh genin; I'm nowhere near that good. Besides…" She touched her new spikes. "I like it like this."

"I wish you weren't leaving," he said suddenly.

Aiko frowned, feeling uncomfortable. "I'm not really leaving, you know," she pointed out. "I still live with you. I'm not going to be leaving the village for a long time. My first missions will all be in the village. While you're in school, I'm going to be doing lame stuff like weeding gardens and painting fences." She made a fence.

Naruto flailed, spilling some juice. He caught the cup before it actually tipped, and looked back up at her. "What?! Why would you do that?"

"That's what D-rank missions are like," she said, amused by his ignorance. He really was cute when he overreacted like that. "Since I'm graduating young, they're not going to want me out of the village for a long time. I'm a little jealous of you, in a way. You'll probably spend a lot less time on D-ranks than I will."

He pointed and laughed at her for a while. She huffed and stood, brushing non-existent crumbs off her shirt. "Don't be a brat, Naruto. Hey, you need to get dressed."

He gave her a vaguely superior look. "Aiko, it's Saturday. I don't have class. Have fun at school!" he snickered. She stuck her tongue out at him and jammed her feet into her sandals.

"Hey, toss me my bento. Thanks." She shut the door behind her and set off for the Academy at an easy run. At one point she had to stop and stare at a person who just had to be Maito Gai. Granted, he was wearing completely normal ninja attire, and his hair didn't seem to be slicked down, so she might not have picked him out of a crowd if he'd been walking down the street. She could tell because he was walking on his hands and balancing a cactus on his feet, tongue sticking out a little with concentration. She waved weakly, feeling a little shell-shocked. He transferred the potted plant to one foot and waved at her with the other leg. He seemed to be concentrating too much to actually speak, so she let it be and backed away slowly.

The classroom she was to wait in was nearly full, and she recognized almost no one in it. Most of the kids here were from the other classrooms. Some of them gave her strange looks, but no one called her out. Aiko took a seat at the back of the classroom (she liked having a wall to her back and waited.

Iruka came in with Mizuki at his side and a scroll. She barely listened to his spiel (something about adulthood and responsibility) and only perked up once he began to read off teams. Team by team left the room… and she suddenly realized that it didn't look like the kids in the classroom ended up as a dividend of three. Alarmed, she began to count to be sure. 3-6-9-12-…13… There were thirteen students in the room…. Shit, she'd thrown off the count by graduating on time. Then there were seven students… Which turned to four, and then it was just her and Iruka-sensei was rolling up the scroll.

"Um… Sensei?" she said dumbly. Mizuki gave a quiet snicker, but didn't comment. Iruka looked vaguely sympathetic when he avoided her gaze and stuttered that her sensei should be by to get her soon, wait here please.

Then they left and she was alone… with a sinking feeling.

"Oh hell, I'm going to be waiting here a while, aren't I?"


This is the end of the material that was completely re-written. From here on out, alterations are edits, not a total overhaul. Apologies for any inconsistencies.

Chapter Text

The Academy classroom had long been emptied. The lone girl inside had long ago eaten her bento and it was almost time for dinner. It was dark outside, and those goddamn crickets just wouldn't shut up. For a long, terrible moment, Aiko gave serious thought to senbon practice. But that would be ridiculous. She couldn't possibly kill all the noisy bugs in the world, could she?

'I could try,' she thought darkly.

Luckily, that was when the classroom door slid open and a man who could only be Kakashi stepped in, nonchalant as you please. She lifted her head off the desk and swiveled to look at him. Aiko's eyes narrowed. He'd made her wait far longer than the anime had indicated. Was it because he was testing her especially harshly, a simple coincidence, or just because he was less ready to deal with his dead sensei's child?

"My first impression… you're a shrimp."

"And mine is that you're an inconsiderate asshat!" she snapped. Then she slapped a hand over her mouth and flushed. 'There goes the good impression…'

He seemed stunned by being called 'the hat of the ass' (so it didn't translate well, whatever), but recovered in time to tell her to "Meet me up on the roof."

And then he was gone in that damned smoke. She coughed, waving it out of her face. Instead of heading down the hall to the staircase, she pushed the window open and cautiously swung out onto the ledge, slowly and carefully walking up the side of the building.

She'd had more than enough time to try tree-walking before, after all. It wasn't exactly kept secret, and she knew of other Academy students who had been able to perform the chakra exercise, like Hinata. She should be able to do this for three stories if she concentrated. Even at her cautious pace, she'd save about five minutes off the walk. 'He's probably counting on some time to read before I get there,' she thought with a little too much glee at the thought of thwarting him. Her foot slipped once on the crumbly brick surface, but she quickly regained her footing. Aiko curled her fingers around the metal bar at the top of the railing on the roof and kicked outward to flip over it entirely and land semi-gracefully.

'Best part of being born in this awful place. I would be a great gymnast, if the ninja thing doesn't work out.'

Her sensei looked up from his book, completely bored. "Maaa, took you long enough. Alright. Tell me about you." He monotoned, flipped a page, giving the impression that the question was standard and that he didn't care in the slightest.

Aiko felt an eyebrow twitch. She'd known what to expect, but he was just so rude. "Uzumaki Aiko, as you damn well know. I'm ten and I like my brother. I'd ask about you, but I bet you wouldn't answer."

He stood, ignoring her. "Well, now that we know each other, I should tell you about the genin test. It's pretty funny, actually." He chuckled darkly.

From an adult perspective, he was clearly being theatrical for some nefarious reason.

"Let me guess, one out of three or some other ridiculously high number fails, then I panic and you disappear before I can ask questions. Spooky spooky." She wiggled her fingers at him, distinctly unimpressed.

'What kind of adult gets that much amusement out of psyching out a kid? Does he really not want to have anything to do with genin? Is he trying to get rid of me?'

Kakashi frowned at her, wrinkling his mask. "I don't like you. Meet me at training ground seven at five am." Then she was alone on the roof.

"Well, that was a fantastic waste of my time." She paused for a long moment. "And where is training ground seven?"

That night, she and Naruto ate raw cookie dough instead of dinner and watched tv. It wasn't very good- she recognized it as some sort of monster movie, but it definitely wasn't one she was familiar with from her old world. Sometimes she thought this place was some weird splinter reality from Japan- the language was similar and shared vocabulary, and she recognized several of the legends. The technology was completely inexplicable, though. It wasn't very advanced from her perspective, but it was still strange it had developed along some similar lines.


Kakashi relaxed in his perch in a tree above the clearing in training ground seven. As five am came and went without a student in sight, he started to wish he'd spent more time at the memorial stone. His one normal eye was fixated on his book even now, when there was no one to act for. His other senses were scanning the area rigidly, however.

He'd wondered what Minato's kids were like. It had been years since he had been enough of an ANBU rookie to work protection detail in-village. Sure, he'd seen glances of them from a distance, but that didn't tell him much. Well. Okay, it did—he saw that the boy was loud and mischievous in a way that pained him –likeObitoObitoObito- though his apparent stupidity was baffling, where had that come from? The girl was much quieter. Someone seemed to be taking care of them, as they appeared well-fed and dressed. They were each painful to look at in their own way- the boy was like a tiny Minato clone with Kushina's exuberant personality. The girl looked like a perfect blend of her parents' coloring with what he fancied was Minato's serious mien.

The child he was thinking about meandered into his space of awareness and he lowered Icha Icha Sexy to eye her. She was dressed much the same as yesterday. It was a strange combination of minimalism and that eye-gouging yellow (andthathaircut, it was like Minato's coincidenceornot?). Today he spotted a single weapons pouch secured to her leg, which was an improvement. He'd wondered if she fancied herself good enough at taijutsu to not need any weaponry.

His leg twitched. His body was clearly eager to get back to the stone (taking an apprentice was a painful parallel; what would Sensei think would he laugh Kakashi-kun you have no patience), but he'd wanted to see her when she thought she was unobserved to get a read on her. He wasn't sure what it meant that she wandered in six minutes late, seemingly unconcerned about disobeying her first order from a superior officer. The child didn't even look around for him.

Kakashi felt a little affronted- she shouldn't be jaded enough to assume there was no way he'd show up on time yet- and pouted from his perch while she unloaded what looked like a bento (yum, perhaps he'd borrow that) and slipped off her sandals before engaging in what looked like the strangest warm up he had ever seen. He almost considered uncovering his other eye to try to find some sort of meaning in the way she folded over with her hands on her feet, then slid them to the ground and stepped back to some sort of plank. 'Maybe a stretch?' The 24 year-old shifted uncomfortably. 'No point in spending much time here,' he decided, leaping away silently. 'I can't fail her. Hokage-sama made that clear'.

The Hokage had actually forcibly retired him from ANBU specifically for this assignment, actually. He wasn't sure if it was sentimentality or vicious practicality. He was, after all, the last living person to be familiar with both of her parents' techniques. A lot of Kushina's were unique and couldn't be performed by someone outside the bloodline. Reviving those techniques would do a lot for village morale and how they looked to enemies. Having not one but two children from the union of two of the greatest heroes of the last war—well, those kids were resources the Sandaime would have had to be crazy to waste. That wasn't her fault, of course. He was still going to punish her by making her wait.

He wasn't ready to confront living reminders of how he'd failed everyone he'd ever loved.


When the itch on the back of her neck left, Aiko breathed a sigh of relief. It was probably paranoia, but she'd felt like she was being watched. 'Don't be stupid,' she scolded herself. 'You're just excited about beginning real training.'

When her warm-up was done, she tried to kill time by running through handseals to improve her dexterity and accuracy. When her fingers began to feel sore, she performed from stretches on the ground. Then she paced for a while, wishing she had brought a book. She had a short spar with a tree, pretending it was Neji. Then she climbed the Neji-tree only using chakra in her hands and hung upside down on a branch from her knees. Her sensei didn't announce his presence so much as suddenly appear directly in front of her face.

Aiko shrieked in surprise, reflexively batting at him and swinging away to crouch on the tree trunk. She didn't hit him, of course, but he seemed mildly amused by the attempt. "Maah, what kind of greeting is that?" He pretended to look sorrowful.

"The kind you merit," she said dryly, "You creeper. Seriously, why would you pop up in my face like that?"

"I had no idea you were here," he lied easily, "I was too distracted by heavy thoughts. You see, I found a poor stray mama cat who had lost her kittens and I helped her track them all down, but now I'm thinking that perhaps I should have escorted them all the way back to their home."

There was a long moment of silence.

'I can't believe he really says things like that' was warring with 'if the cat is a stray, what home is she going to?'

She swallowed all comments. "I see." Aiko wished she knew what to expect. Obviously, she couldn't be tested on teamwork like the original team seven would be, since she had no team per say. What else did Kakashi care about in students? Dedication and insight, perhaps.

"Today… We will be sparring until I can determine the extent of your capabilities." Kakashi eyed the sudden slump of his student's shoulders and wondered if that meant she disliked sparring or that he'd disappointed her expectations. No matter. "Come at me with intent to kill." He chuckled lowly just for effect. "Trust me, you'll need to be trying your best." He raised his visible eyebrow when she remained completely still, gazing at him impassively. "Well?"

Then she attacked. After a few moments to get his bearings and merely blocking her blows (she hit like a girl her age, but a relatively strong one) he adjusted the level he was fighting at to mid-chuunin levels so that he could easily overpower her without hurting her too badly.

He thought he had overestimated her for a second when a punch sent her reeling, but her quick recovery turned her retreat into a side-step attempt to flank him. He didn't let it work, but he noted that she seemed to have a good understanding of the fact that she had no chance of defeating him head-on. That showed some tactical thinking. She didn't look irritated that her feint failed- as if she'd never expected it to. Her taijutsu was acceptable genin levels. 'I can work with that, at least.'

He could see the moment she decided to switch tactics- largely because her eyes narrowed and her chakra rose up.

She created three bunshin copies of herself and then did a kawarimi with one of them in the smoke –not too bad—and then all girls simultaneously used kawarimi not once but twice (this reminded him of that game with rice under a cup, he'd always been good at the game. The trick was seeing when the rice was taken out.)

Just as he'd suspected, she had made a fourth clone at some point and they all rushed him. The girl herself was clinging to a tree and drawing out a shuriken in each hand. The instant he'd destroyed the second clone was when she released the projectiles in a line aimed at his face. He dodged with a faint smile.

'So that's genin-level taijutsu, decent aerial weaponry skills, some tactical thinking… What about genjutsu?'

In an instant he disappeared from her field of vision. He could sense her vitals spike in alarm and restrained a chuckle. Oh, cute. He whipped through the symbols for a standard Hell-Viewing technique and used the movement of leaves in the wind to catch her in it. She wavered on her perch on the tree—and for one second he moved forward to catch her, he should probably have waited for her to be on the ground—but she outright yelled "KAI" and shook her head, looking disgruntled. She regained her footing but he was already below her. She chose to kick off and fall directly at him, kunai in hand.

He smirked. Instead of side-stepping and letting her hit the ground, he looked up calmly and snatched her right out of the air, grabbing her under her arms then switching his grip almost immediately to her upper arms, which he twisted behind her and used to easily force her to the ground. Her chest hit the dirt with an 'Oof!' and he kept her there with a foot planted on her back. She huffed irritably and turned her face to glare at him with one eye. He smiled mildly down at her.

There was a sudden burst of weak killing intent and she began to struggle. Kakashi frowned. "Hey now, don't do that," he chided. "You could break something when I'm holding you like this. Admit when you've lost."

"Yes, sensei," she scowled. "I give up."

"That's what I was looking for." He released her and stepped back, calmly watching her regain her footing and snap to attention. "Well," he began contemplatively, tapping his chin, "It's a shame… but I'll guess you'll have to do." He watched her reaction- what kind of kid had she grown up to be? She rolled her eyes, but didn't look all that affronted. That was acceptable. He didn't want to be stuck with a brat who got their hackles up at everything.

He stepped away, then looked over his shoulder as if his next statement was an afterthought. "I suppose I should tell you to meet me at Hokage Tower at eight am tomorrow to get your first mission." He lazily raised one hand, then flickered away, eager to be away from the gir—his student. Ugh, what a terrible thought.


Aiko considered dragging herself home, feeling soreness in pretty much every muscle she had. Taijutsu with a Jounin was not fun, not fun at all. She felt tired and not exactly eager… Meeting with Kakashi had made her realize just how emotionally distant and eager to flee he was. Since she didn't have a team, she was going to be spending a lot of time alone. She'd never been the type of person who needed a ton of socialization, but she would be getting pretty lonely if she spent her days alone and only nights with Naruto.

It was barely noon and she'd been abandoned for the day. Was she meant to keep up with her same workout routine? She had hoped to get some instruction from him. He hadn't told her anything about whatever conclusions he'd come to about her level- no praise or critiques.

Since she was already there- and was finally considered mature enough to use a real training ground, that was an improvement, right? – Aiko pushed herself through the motions of a workout.

She concentrated on sprints and building leg muscle through lunges, then transitioned to working on her flexibility until the strain in her joints bordered on painful.

Her next self-designed training exercise was meant to combine agility and chakra control: She flipped counter to gravity in the tree tops in increasingly acrobatic stunts, keeping her breathing even and flinging kunai at falling leaves to pin them to tree trunks. She counted the kunai that hit trees without snagging their leaves and was relatively satisfied, but knew that she needed to continue working on accuracy with moving targets. Aiko had no plans to specialize with aerial weaponry, but she was sure that using the skill in real combat was nothing like flinging kunai at a stationary pole while standing still at a certain distance.

She ate her prepared bento once she was done under the shade of the trees, laying on her back and cloud watching. That done, Aiko meandered home, trying not to look too wistfully at the Academy age children playing in the streets. She didn't see Naruto but she did see the unmistakable signs of his passing- a series of plastic tatters from broken balloons and bright, inky stains on light colored buildings and signs.

"Hey, Uzumaki!"

She stopped, mildly surprised. "Ino-san?"

Judging by the uncharacteristic dirt on Ino's white shorts and her messy ponytail, she'd been doing something like gardening. The shorter girl put her hands on her hips, tilted them sassily, and scowled at her. "I heard you graduated, but I just couldn't believe it. You're our age! How'd you do that?"

"Well, I was enrolled four years," she pointed out.

Ino's eyes widened. "No way!" she exclaimed in disgust. "You're ten like me."

She shrugged. "We started early." Aiko shot her former classmate a weak smile. "Sorry?"

Ino waved the apology away. "Don't be ridiculous, you don't have anything to apologize for. I guess that means that you aren't necessarily good. It's more that-" She seemed to realize how rude it would be to complete the thought that 'Naruto is bad at school 'and cut herself off guiltily. "Hey, walk with me. I'm supposed to pick up from colored paper for the flower shop."

"Sounds fine," Aiko agreed easily. She glanced down at herself and grimaced. "I'm pretty gross right now from training, though."

"Do you have a super-cool sensei? What's your team like?" The blonde girl shot out, flipping her hair over her shoulder.

"Actually, I don't have a team," she sighed. "It's a bit of a disappointment actually. My sensei… Hmm. Well, he's very skilled, but also very distant from what I can tell. I'm sure I will learn a lot from him, but I wish I had a team."

"I bet I know my team," Ino groused. "My dad told me once that his genin team intentionally had their kids within a few months so that they could have a second generation of their team. Creepy, right? And the boys are so weird!" She threw her hands up in disgust. "All they ever want to do is lay around and eat." She gave Aiko a dirty look. "And you- you were supposed to be my competition for top kunoichi of the year. Now you've gone and shown me up."

Aiko shrugged helplessly. Before she could say a thing, the blonde had continued. "I'm happy for you, of course, but you were really the only other girl who took this seriously. I thought Sakura had potential…"

When Ino trailed off miserably, Aiko shot her an inquisitive look. Last she'd seen, the two girls were practically attached at the hip. "Is something wrong?"

Ino flushed. "Well, yeah! I helped Sa-Forehead girl out for years, and all of a sudden she tells me she doesn't want to be my friend anymore because we like the same guy." Despite her tough act, her dejection was pretty obvious.

Aiko averted her eyes and tried to look like she was surprised. "I'm sorry to hear that. That's dumb. It was really short-sighted to put a boy before both her career and her best friend."

"That's what I thought," Ino grumbled, before she perked up. "I guess that means I'm in the market for a friend, huh? And you need one too, or you're going to go nuts with just your old person sensei for company." She flashed a mischievous grin. "Hey, wanna help me train? I bet you're going to get really strong, working one-on-one all the time. It'd only be fair to help out your Academy rival."

'Well, that was subtle.' "Sure," she laughed. "Once I know my regular schedule, we can plan out a training schedule. How's that sound?"

"I'll hold you to that," Ino nodded seriously. They stopped outside the general store.

"I'm going to leave you here." Aiko pulled at her shirt and grimaced. "I need to get home and clean up, desperately."

With a wrinkled nose, Ino agreed. "I wasn't going to say anything, but yes. You do. Later!"

Aiko felt an eye twitch coming on. 'Does this girl need someone to be frenemies with, or is she really just that rude?'


Monday, January 5.

Her first mission was lame. D-rank missions were utterly vile, she decided, and she had definitely gotten cheated by being a one person team. Kakashi certainly wasn't helping. Actually… She looked around. He wasn't even in sight. Aiko huffed, blowing a longer piece of hair out of her face because her hands were filthy from carrying chemicals around.

'Boy am I glad I had that Academy lecture on safely handling dangerous materials,' she snarked internally. This mission was just manual labor- it would have been given to civilian teams if the junk she was carrying out of a home that was about to be demolished wasn't unsafe. It needed to be disposed of in several different places, depending on substance. She'd found meticulously labeled reagents ranging from super-expired cleaners, herbal materials, bottles of human blood (disgusting!) and homemade poisons. Whoever owned the home had been some sort of specialist with a higher budget than she'd be able to even hope for for years.

With obvious exceptions that she knew better than to touch, some of the more benign items were interesting to the really terrible, naughty, Naruto-ish part of her mind. Since no one was around to care, Aiko snagged a few interesting materials that she had read about but not had access to before, as well as some empty glass vials. It couldn't hurt to practice, right? She could rush to the library to copy down the recipe she wanted after she was free for the day.

After she had finally finished working, Aiko mixed together her dreamed-up concoction (using gloves and a mask) and carefully poured them into three glass bottles that she stoppered and held up to the light. The end result was a pretty blue color… and she immediately tested it in training ground seven by tossing it at a tree a decent distance away (she didn't want to breathe it in). Somewhat strangely, the glass didn't shatter on impact. Instead, it cracked and bounced off into the bushes.

Aiko cursed quietly, wondering if it was safe to approach. She didn't know if it had gone off or not. That is, she didn't know until a horrid yowl split the air and she jumped, first in fright and then to a higher position to see what had happened.

Her concoction did actually seem to form a respectable amount of smoke (who says Naruto was the only one with a mind for chemicals, ha!). It was what she saw when the smoke faded that worried her.

"Oh, shit." She broke off a stick and gently poked at the prone animal she'd found, hoping for good news but already knowing what had happened. "I killed a cat." The thing looked like it had died horribly- it was in a strange pose as if it had convulsed, and blood was leaking from the nose and mouth. Good thing she hadn't breathed in the smoke herself. Aiko bit at her lip. "I'm sorry little guy. You were probably just minding your own business, hanging out in the wild. Maybe you're Kakashi's stray cat. Oh kami, I killed Kakashi's cat. He's going to kill me, 'ttebane! And Naruto! What would Naruto think if he knew I killed a helpless little kitty cat?!"

The corpse seemed to be staring at her accusingly through eyes that were quickly glazing over.

She quietly hyperventilated for a few long moments, trying to repress the panic. When that didn't work, she forced it away by pacing and trying to think. "Okay, just stop. I… I need to destroy the evidence. Cremation is respectful, right?"

It turned out that in her adrenaline-fueled haze, even the silly sparking jutsu could get a decent fire going. She coughed, trying to wave the foul-smelling smoke away from her face. "That's foul." She began to cry. 'I'm a terrible human being. I killed a kitty cat—I'm a terrible ninja! My first casualty was a kitty.'

Somehow her brain had time to conjure up the image of her rotting in jail, explaining to other inmates that she was in for cat murder. That definitely wasn't a respectable ninja action.

'I really hope that isn't Kakashi's cat... If it is, I orphaned a litter of kittens.'

She did her level best not to cry at the thought. Her eyes darted around, looking for other evidence. There were scorch marks on the ground… 'Well, accidentally starting a forest fire would be the exact opposite of subtle.' Terrible human being or not, she wanted Naruto to find out about this absolutely never. That meant no one could know. With that in mind, Aiko ran the hundred meters to the river and gathered up a huge glob of chakra-soaked water in her hands, stumbling back to the scene of the crime post-haste. She splashed it on the area, making sure to leave no trace embers. It was still obvious that something had happened there…

'But would that matter?' She took a long look around the training field. The earth was gouged with holes, some of which were full of water. The trees were scarred from kunai and other weapons, shards of rocks scattered the grounds, and more than one tree looked decidedly crispy. Her little patch of scorched ground didn't look that suspicious, really.

She gathered the two unused bottles and disposed of them quietly on her way home. If her eyes were a bit haunted, Naruto certainly didn't notice that night when he slurped down his oden.

'No one will ever know.'

Thankfully, her next missions were less eventful. After that mess, grocery shopping, raking leaves, and babysitting seemed like a much better use of her time.


Friday, January 9.

"I can't understand it," the Sandaime Hokage groused to his civilian secretary who looked more than a bit sympathetic. "I've had three experienced genin teams fail to find the Fire Lady's cat. This is just ridiculous." He finished signing the papers with a flourish and handed them off. He added in an undertone, "If she comes by again to ask me about her precious baby, I'm not in. You hear me?"

Chapter Text

"Good news, minion. You get your first C-class mission."

An orange wobbled dangerously and then escaped the brown paper bag she was carrying. Before she had time to even yelp, her teacher had caught it with one hand and gently placed it back on top. "Are you serious?" Aiko tried to keep both the incredulousness and the hope out of her voice. Almost two months of mind-numbing manual labor had all but beat the hope for better missions out of her. Her teacher gave a deep chuckle as a warm hand came down on top of her hair and messed it up. She turned her head slightly to glower, not willing to give him the reaction he wanted. "What's that supposed to do, my hair is already a mess," she deadpanned.

"So uncute," he sighed. His hand left her head to turn a page. "We have a mission scheduled for two days from now."
He didn't seem to be joking. "Why would we know about it so far in advance?" she asked, curious.

"Oh, I need to whip you into shape first."

'Why does his voice have to sound so damn good saying such awful things?' Aiko felt herself deflate. "Mean sensei. I'm not fat."

"Never said you were," he said easily. "But I need to be sure you have the stealth to sneak past sleeping civilians."

"Ouch," she groused, feigning pain in her heart. "That hurts me right here, sensei." She rearranged her grip on the bags she was holding. "Could you knock for me? Thank you." When the door opened, the tired woman standing there looked ridiculously grateful. As soon as her hands were free, Aiko rubbed at her aching arm muscles while the client rustled in her purse for a tip. Without even looking up, the civilian woman stuck out a leg in a ninja-worthy move that stopped the toddler behind her from escaping into the street. "Thank you ma'am, have a nice day!" She bowed politely, eyeing the pig-tailed vermin that was struggling futilely towards the open door.

As soon as the door shut, Kakashi sardonically commented, "If only my student was that cute. How did I get stuck with such a serious brat?"

"Yeah, whatever old man. Maybe if you were as pretty as she was, I'd wear pigtails," Aiko shot back. "We both got the short end of the stick." She didn't really believe that, but she'd hate to compliment him before he really taught her anything.

"I'm not old," he said, sounding honestly perplexed. She didn't buy it for a moment.

________________________________________

Stealth training turned out to be just another excuse for Kakashi-sensei to be a giant dick, Aiko concluded the next morning when she showed up for training. "This is all just a joke to you, isn't it," she said flatly, handling the 'supplies' as if they were poisonous. The paper, ink, and perfume very well could have been, but they weren't this time. She would have preferred poison.

He hmmed. "Not at all, Aiko-chan. I think that this will gage your skill quite nicely. If you can sneak past your age counterparts in the Academy, you can almost certainly sneak past civilians."

"But this?" she said miserably, staring at the pink paper.

"Think of it as incentive. You'll be extra careful not to get caught leaving embarrassing love notes, won't you?"

"You're a sick bastard."

"What was that?" He perked his head. "You want to leave one for Hyuuga Neji? And his cousin Hinata too, how daring. I'm sure Hiashi won't mind at all if you break into his home to double-time his heir with his nephew." A single leaf blew past them on the street. For a hysterical moment, Aiko thought that it should have been tumbleweed instead. She swallowed, feeling herself begin to sweat just a little bit. There was no way she could sneak around the Hyuuga estate. And Hinata's dad… Well, he might literally kill her and blame it on the Inuzuka or something.

"Your hair looks great today, sensei. Did I mention that earlier? And wow, have you lost weight?"

"Very funny. Get to work writing your great romance, hime. I'll be checking them."

They didn't meet again until well after sunset at 11:30. Once he was finally satisfied with both the wording and scent ("You 'admire' this person? How unoriginal. Wouldn't you say that he lights your heart on fire, or that you drown in the ocean of his eyes every time you look into them? No, the fact that his eyes are brown is irrelevant." and "You're lucky I'm not making you use your own perfume, even a thick Academy student might figure that out"). He had her break into the Academy to copy some student records. In the first remotely considerate move he had made that night, Kakashi let Aiko choose her targets instead of picking them for her. She didn't spend too long trying to figure out A. Who she thought she could sneak past and B. who wouldn't embarrass her if she were to be caught. As they ran to the first house, he mused "Do you think they'll be flattered or frightened to wake up to a love note on their pillows?"

'and why do they have to be left directly on pillows, instead of just beside the bed?' The girl knew better than to say things like that aloud. Her sensei would only think of some new and exciting restriction- like the note had to be taped to the recipient's face, or she could only hop on her left foot or something.

"No matter what happens, I'm hoping that they're not flattered enough to try and figure it out," Aiko muttered. It wasn't entirely impossible that one of them could track her down. 'I only wish I could see Ami's face when she realizes someone stood next to her bed while she slept. Maybe she'll straighten up after a shock to the system like that.' She was the first target. The girl had never bothered Aiko herself, but that was more because Aiko didn't exude weakness than because Ami was kind.

All five note drops went off without a hitch, thankfully. Aiko even took a single strand of hair from each recipient/victim for incontrovertible proof. Kakashi must have a nose like a dog, because he sniffed each one to verify (and why was he familiar with the smells of academy children?). She finally finished at what must have been two a.m.

Her teacher seemed to want to be responsible for once, walking her all the way home. "So, what have you learned?"

"My former classmates need better security," she said flatly.

"And?"

"And that I do have the necessary skills to sneak past an average civilian."

"Hmm. Exactly." He yawned, clearly disinterested in her. "Here's a life lesson for you—improve your traps so you aren't an easy target like that."

"Thanks for saying goodbye," she muttered to the space where he had been until an instant ago. Aiko sighed, rubbing under her tired eyes with one hand while she jiggled her key in the door. She fell in bed fully dressed, feeling pathetically grateful that tomorrow wasn't one of her early mornings where she met with Ino for a workout.

She woke up with a note taped to her forehead. It was unsigned, but it said, "Improve your traps."

They left for their first C-class mission as a team in the evening. Aiko had debated over what to bring for a while, but ended up only filling her leg holster and attaching the weird hip/lower back pouch that was standard equipment for other travel supplies. Her sensei raised a sardonic eye at her when they met at the gate. "What, no tent or sleeping roll?"

She rolled her eyes. "It's too warm for it to be worth carrying. We're only going to be gone one night, and I'm wearing long sleeves."

He chuckled. "Practical."

Their mission was one by request of the Fire Daimyo himself. Apparently he was trying to cheer up his wife, who had recently suffered a death in the family. Aiko was torn- on one hand, it seemed sweet to make a grand gesture of affection. On the other hand, said gesture was stealing a jewelry set from a noblewoman who had snubbed the Lady in court.
'Rich people are fucking weird,' she eventually decided.

Still, if it paid the bills, it wasn't her job to complain about little things like morality. The dossier had claimed that the jewels had been stolen, (as if it was important to improve how bad the request looked to paid assassins, she'd scoffed) but Aiko didn't believe that for a red-hot minute.

"I'll be following to insure your safety," Kakashi said quietly from his position behind her. She peered at the courtyard walls from her location in the shadows. "But this is your operation. You know your route?"

"Yes," she replied, just as quietly. Then she switched to handsigns. Aiko rather imagined she could feel him stiffen in surprise- he hadn't taught those to her. She repressed a smirk- she'd asked Iruka sensei to teach her. He had been too busy, but she'd gotten tutored in it by the woman who had helped her with court-style calligraphy (she had had a lot of time back in the Academy to spend in specialization classes, since she had spent two years sitting out of taijutsu practice).

I take left path. Go now?

He signed back, Go.

She darted across the grounds, setting on palm on the wall and then flipping up and over into the inner courtyard. Her landing in an iris garden was quiet-luckily she tapped down onto the stone pathway and not in the plants themselves. In the instant of stillness, she observed the courtyard- a luxurious koi pond crossed with a bridge and dotted with large rocks under a tree peony, surrounded by moss and light-colored rocks, and a smoothly manicured lawn dotted with tiny shrines.
Aiko was hidden within the shadows of the pagoda roof before a civilian could have seen her. In the space between heartbeats her sensei was beside her, looking feline and dangerous instead of vaguely sleepy as he usually did. Silently she tapped across the tiles, making her way to the window she had noted on the floor plan. She slipped into the second floor guest bedroom easily and leapt onto the ceiling to speed into the target's suite. It was even darker inside, so she took a long moment to let her vision adjust.

The layout wasn't complicated, but she was still thankful she had been able to see a rough floor plan before entering. Her entry point had only been two hallways away from where she almost certainly needed to be. The mission report had described the court lady they were stealing from as someone who would likely keep her jewels close- she didn't trust her staff.

The target, a slim woman of about thirty with long black hair, was sleeping peacefully in the bedroom… and so were the two other women in the bed with her. Aiko felt red heat spread over her ears and neck. She tried to suppress the impression that Kakashi was silently cackling at her. That was rather a lot of flesh showing, even with the blue silk sheets draped over (most of) them. Only a few feet from the heavy breathing of her target, she pawed through drawers, being certain to put everything exactly where it had been and touch as little as possible. She was wearing gloves, but it would be best not to leave her scent if she could help it. Good habits and all that.

'That's it!' Aiko wrapped the necklace, bracelet and earring set in the thin towel she'd prepared and tucked it into her pouch. It was actually rather pretty- black stones set in delicate silver filigree. Getting out was just as easy as getting in had been. At one point she stopped entirely on her ceiling perch and held her breath while a petite girl walked by clutching what looked like a pitcher of water.

She didn't speak until they were a good ten miles away, speeding back towards Konoha. The adrenaline rush left her, and Aiko felt weary. That was strange- the active part of the mission had only taken about an hour from start to escape. Maybe it was just nerves?

"That went well," her teacher commented. She was disoriented enough by her first real mission to smile up at him. "Maybe you'll be ready for real missions soon."

"I thought this was a real mission."

He gave her a mildly disbelieving look. "Stealing from sleeping civilians without so much as a hired thug bodyguard?"
Aiko shrugged. "Better than walking dogs."

His lone eye narrowed in a way that indicated he was thinking. She tried not to shiver, and hoped she hadn't given him any more ideas for cruel and unusual training.

________________________________________

"I can't believe you had a real mission!" Naruto bounced around the kitchen, almost too excited to do what she told him. It took a glare to remind him that he was meant to be dicing vegetables. She quickly finished using the other cutting board to thinly slice the beef, and then set it in a sizzling pan.

"Nah," she demurred, turning to wash her hands thoroughly. "It wasn't so great. How was class today?" Her brother pouted, casting a dirty look at the small pile of books on the couch.

"Ne, it was terrible!" Aiko kept one ear open to her brother's complaints- something about Ino and glue? – while she worked on the rest of dinner. She gently lifted the lid off the rice pot and checked to be sure it had been soaking long enough before she turned the heat on. Aiko frowned slightly. "Wait, I'm confused. Where did Hinata even get live kunai?" The beef was starting to smell fragrant, so she agitated the pan and turned the meat over.

She could practically hear Naruto's shrug in his answer. "I don't know, but it was the best thing ever!" He fell silent for a second. "Hey, Aiko? Do you remember Sakura-chan?"

"Of course," she said easily. "What about her?" Inwardly, she tried not to wince. 'Please don't be that crush already…'
Of course that was too much to hope for.

"She's really pretty," Naruto said dreamily, propping his chin up on his hands. "Sakura-chan always smells nice and she's so smart at school and have you ever seen pink hair before on anyone else? She's amazing."

Aiko didn't bother to hide her wince. There was no point, Naruto didn't pay attention to cues like that anyway. "No, her hair is unique," was the most diplomatic answer she could choke out. "But Naruto-kun… She isn't very nice, you know."

"She is so," Naruto muttered. Then he brightened up. "Maybe I can impress her with my ninja skills! She's always looking at Sasuke like he' so cool. When I beat him, she'll like me instead!"

Aiko bopped him on the head with a clean wooden spoon. "That's not the way affection works," she scolded. Then a thought occurred. 'I could use this to motivate him…'

Slyly, the slightly older twin acted as if she'd just remembered something. "Sakura does really well in academics, right? You'd have to do well there to impress her, as well as taijutsu. She's the kind of girl who respects strength and…" Aiko grimaced. 'That isn't true, strictly speaking. Strength is more a by-product of what Haruno finds attractive.' "Well, she actually likes people who she thinks are cool. People who are self-assured, good looking, and stuff like that. She isn't going to like anyone who can't keep up with her."

Naruto slumped over the table. "So mean, nee-chan." He cracked one eye open to peer miserably up at her. "It's not my fault I'm not good at school work!"

"Not exactly, no." Aiko gave him a one-handed squeeze. "You have a lot of energy and a short attention span, which makes school work difficult. But you could be working a lot harder than you do. You know perfectly well that skipping class and planning pranks when Iruka is talking is going to hurt your scores, but you do it anyways. If you want to impress Sakura, start there."

"I guess," Naruto said unhappily. He retrieved his history textbook and looked at it as if it was about to bite him. Aiko nudged him gently with a shoulder. "What's the assignment?"

"The class is supposed to read chapter 7," he dully informed.

Aiko frowned at the strange wording. "The class is?"

"Yeah, I haven't finished chapter 2 yet. I don't understand any of it," he whined. Aiko sighed. "Give it here." She flipped it open. "We can read together and talk about it as we go. You remember conversation much better than things you've read."
Naruto's decision to impress Sakura with his intellect didn't exactly work. For one thing, he'd been at the bottom of rankings for long enough that it would be impossible for him to make it to the top of the class. For another, he didn't really have the aptitude for that kind of study anyways. He wasn't as diligent as he'd intended to be when he started studying for real, but with frequent reminders to study (and of why he was studying, however painful Aiko found the idea herself) helped to keep him afloat. The sudden improvement had probably terrified poor Iruka, Aiko realized one day. He would be just waiting for the massive prank that an apparent switch in personality was leading up to. It might have been kinder to put tacks on his chair so he stopped thinking that Naruto was trying to lull him into letting his guard down.

Her brother had actually put a temporary halt to pranks on his sensei, under the rationale that there were people who deserved to be pranked much more and that it would be a waste of his incredible skills to focus on one person. By this time, three months had passed since Aiko became a genin. Kakashi had yet to teach her a single jutsu, she had been on exactly one C-class mission, and he hadn't done much to improve her other base skills either. She found that her routine was much the same as it ever had been. He sure had a strange way of teaching. He'd given her a few pointers on water-walking after she had finished tree climbing, and could be counted on to give her at least one taijutsu spar daily. Unfortunately, it was usually more like a 'beat-down' than a spar, but he gave pointers and she worked on her free time to incorporate his suggestions.

She had been right with her original assessment: being without a team was lonely, and since Kakashi didn't seem to want anything to do with her, he didn't make up for the absence. Aiko continued to do what she knew how to do—she improved her aim, chakra control, ran a lot, attempted to build some muscle mass, and played around with wire and chakra strings. Her improvement since the academy was notable. In a way, Kakashi's laid back teaching style might have been working for her. If she'd just gotten powerful jutsu, she might not have spent as much time improving her base shinobi skillset. Every shinobi needed to be at least competent in those areas beyond genin level- Namikaze Minato had made speed an incredible weapon, legends like Kakashi and Itachi used basic tools like kunai, and ninja like Lee managed to be formidable without a single jutsu.
In other words, she could be a freaking legend even if she never learned another jutsu, but she'd get herself killed in thirty seconds flat into real combat if she couldn't move quickly enough to dodge.

She tried to keep that in mind when a snickering Chuunin handed her a mission scroll detailing her new D-class mission gathering herbs from the forest immediately surrounding Konoha. 'Kakashi-sensei knows what he's doing,' Aiko gritted through her teeth while she murderously popped the heads off of the purple flowers she was collecting.

________________________________________
"I have no fucking idea what I'm doing," Hatake Kakashi chuckled to a former ANBU colleague one night after yet another day of lazing around reading while his short pers- student, he definitely meant student- completed easy missions. Really it wasn't so bad. It was like a vacation, only with a midget and no hotel sex. Kakashi frowned at the thought, suddenly unhappy with this 'teaching' gig again. Across the table, Tenzou tried not to look too aghast at the thought of his sempai with a small child. Kakashi-sempai was his hero, really he was! His sempai was incredibly strong, he was the most intelligent man that Tenzou knew, he was an excellent commanding officer, and he always smelled so damn manly. But…

"Training a fresh genin is probably not much like training ANBU," Tenzou ventured as a guess. He didn't exactly have much experience with kids. Like Kakashi, he had been drafted directly into the program at such a young age that he'd never known anything different, and certainly hadn't had peers.

Kakashi shrugged easily, swiping his cute little kohai's last stick of yakitori and jamming it into his mouth so quickly that the kid didn't even notice his mask had come down. "How different can it be? We're all adults here."

Tenzou valiantly resisted the face-palm, but he just didn't have the willpower. By the time he managed to look up, his sempai was gone and a receipt was slowly falling to the table. "What the…" Tentatively, he reached out and snagged it. Then his face turned indignant. 'I don't want to pay for his meal! Besides, who drinks at this hour anyway?!'

Chapter Word Total : 3,648
Cumulative Word Total : 30,165

Chapter Text

Naruto idly tapped on his desk (the one directly in front of where Iruka lectured, which would theoretically make it easier for the Chuunin to catch him misbehaving), wishing the period would just finish already. He had clawed his way out of the bottom academic ranking, but he would still much rather be working on his aim. Lately he had been spending almost all of his physical development time on throwing skills, after he'd noted that Mizuki-sensei was a goddamn prick and never pointed out his mistakes. He never seemed especially approving either- he'd give Naruto's poor katas the same nod he gave Sakura's technical perfection. He wasn't addressing either of their issues.

Naruto knew from watching his pretty (incredibly, mind-bogglingly, world-changingly pretty) classmate that her stamina was very poor and that she was lacking in muscle mass (even for the admittedly low standards for ten year old girls). Likewise, he knew that he tended to overreach and start his kata too quickly which ended up forcing him faster and faster. Speed was great, but he wanted to go at a speed he wasn't ready for and that ended up making his steps sloppy.

He probably wouldn't know the difference if Aiko hadn't pointed out his issues in the same casual way she told him it was his turn to take out the garbage. It wasn't good or bad, it was just being brought to his attention so that he could do something about it.

Ino (He took a moment to glare at the back of her head, long blonde hair swaying gently in the breeze from open windows) had been less diplomatic about his level. He was going to fight her one day too. Aiko was spending what seemed like every other morning working out with Ino. He'd been invited, of course, but… he had other things to do. Like find out where Mizuki-sensei lived and smear the juice from a can of tuna fish under the table. (No matter how hard Mizuki-bastard scrubbed, his kitchen was going to gradually get stinkier and stinkier.) Naruto tried not to cackle overmuch in class. That had been yesterday- the Chuunin had probably only recently noticed the smell and was trying to find the source. Comedic gold, if only he could witness the frustration himself. An eraser suddenly appeared in him immediate vision and he jerked to the left to avoid it. 'Eh heh heh… Iruka-sensei looks kinda mad.'

"Stop cackling, Uzumaki. It's disruptive and just plain weird." With a mid-level stern glare (Naruto had made a mental chart, categorizing the severity of Iruka Glares) the Chuunin that didn't totally suck (Bite me, Mizuki-bastard!) went back to droning on about why you actually shouldn't aim for the jugular in a certain type of situation. It had something to do with bloodspray and tracking by scent?

For the next four minutes, Naruto was a model student. Then he was tired of that. Sasuke, that goddamn prick, was dutifully focused on the lecture. He never took notes, but he was always right when the teachers called on him. They called on him a lot- whenever Naruto or Kiba couldn't answer a question, Iruka would look to Mr. Perfect Hair. Smug bastard. Naruto broke a pencil in his fist, totally oblivious to the way that Shino gave him a mildly alarmed stare and inched away, beetles hiding deeper under his seasonally inappropriate coat.

Naruto shifted guiltily. It sucked to compare his academic performance to others. It was just so hard. 'Maybe if I worked like Aiko, I'd already be graduated.' The thought made him feel bad about himself, so he tried not to think it often. It was hard to not to make the comparison, though. She was his twin and they'd entered the academy the same year- should they be more alike?

It wasn't that Naruto didn't work at his ninja skills- far from it! He worked at it daily. But he just couldn't only be a ninja like Aiko. She didn't have any hobbies or downtime, and her workouts with Ino were probably the closest thing she had to a friendship. If she'd been someone else… well, he might have thought that she was cripplingly weird and too serious. She kinda acted like an old lady, (except for all the cursing, of course.)

That afternoon he rushed home, pinching the torn seam of his favorite black t shirt shut. (He was totally going to beat the shit out of Kiba next time they sparred, believe it!). 'I beat Aiko home,' he noticed dumbly when he shucked off his shoes. 'That almost never happens.' Aside from her one overnight mission, his sister was almost always home when he walked in the door. She generally went out to train again after the worst of the heat passed, but only after they had dinner. He felt like being helpful, so he started some tea before he tugged off his shirt and went in search of the little sewing kit Aiko had been forced to buy for her kunoichi class.

Naruto really didn't understand how she could be so incredibly bad at repairing her clothes, especially since she'd had to take a class on it. The things that girl could do with a seam just didn't bear thinking about, so Naruto generally clenched his teeth and did her mending in addition to his own.

"Oy, that tea fresh?"

"Yeah, but you don't get any because you're a cotton-headed ninnymuggins," he called back casually, fighting down the corners of his mouth. He heard his sister snicker from the other room- that one always made her laugh for some reason. Naruto wasn't entirely sure why. She'd taught him lots of bad words to call people and most of them didn't make her laugh at all.

Aiko wandered in from the kitchen (he hadn't even noticed her cross the room, when had she gotten so sneaky?) holding a cup of tea. "You look like doo," he casually commented, keeping one eye on his stitches and one eye on the way her right eye twitched. "I'm not sure what kind. Unimaginative bet is on dog doo, but I'm leaning towards sheep."

"Thanks, little brother. You always know just what to say." She flopped down onto the couch in a way that probably should have spilled hot liquid all over her. He'd been joking, but he hadn't really been lying. She must have come directly from her workout, because her bangs were still plastered to her forehead with sweat and he could see a line of bruises on the backs of her forearms- from blocking blows in a spar with a stronger opponent, probably?

He imagined that if he stared long enough, he would be able to watch him fade. Both of the twins healed quickly, but he never seemed to see it happen. It was almost as if bruises waited for him to lose interest before they scuttled off.
"What are you thinking about?" Her uncanny blue-green eyes were directed at him. Naruto loved his sister's eyes. They looked like what he imagined the ocean was.

"Crabs," Naruto said firmly. "Would you describe the way they move as a scuttle?" He waved his hands to demonstrate, light glinting off the needle in his fist.

"I've never met a crab," she said dryly. "When I do, I'll tell you all about it." Aiko kicked her feet up to rest on the arms of the couch, stretching one arm out precariously to set her tea cup down with a clink onto the side table. "Brother mine, love of my life, most clever and ki-"

"You're so full of shit it's coming out your ears," Naruto interrupted blandly, too focused on his mending to muster up an emotional response. "What is it you want mended?"

"I'll go get them." Aiko easily rolled off the couch and landed on just one foot, sliding into a walk without a moment's awkwardness. Naruto silently cursed his sister's coordination while she padded away to rustle around in the bedroom (they shared) and came back with what appeared to be a pair of her leggings. She tossed it at him, and he barely pulled them out of the air before they landed on his hair. "Please and thank you. "

"What's for dinner?" he called. He could practically sense his sister roll her eyes from the kitchen. She was clearly getting things ready- the icebox opened and closed, as did drawers and he could hear rustles. Then there was a knock on the door. Naruto blinked and then his sister was crouched beside him, frowning slightly.

"You expecting anyone?" she asked in an undertone. He shook his head, setting the needle aside and sliding a kunai out of his holster. Aiko gave him an approving quirk of the lips, moving to the door so quickly that she was just a blur of color. The tenseness in her shoulders fled as soon as she cracked the door and breathed deeply. "Um, hello sensei. Would you like to come in and have some tea?"

A tall man stepped through the door. 'He's weird looking,' Naruto marveled, putting his kunai away and picking his mending back up again. This was his first glimpse of Aiko's sensei. He was slouched over like Shikamaru, dressed like a Jounin, and had hair like he'd stuck a finger in a light socket. When the tall guy turned to pass one eye lazily over Naruto, the boy stiffened. The dark blue mask over his jaw moved slightly, but Naruto couldn't tell what expression was being made. "Maaa, Aiko," the old guy rumbled. "No tea, thank you. I came to tell you to get ready. We have a last minute mission."

"Duration?" Aiko asked briskly, draining her tea cup and starting towards the bedroom.

The old guy 'hmmmed'. "Oh, hard to say. We're tracking a Chuunin level missing nin. Should be an easy introduction into the craft. I'd pack light. We're going to be doing a lot of running."

"Is this why you've been pushing my speed so much?" Aiko called from the bedroom, sounding calm despite the sounds of frantic packing.

"Exactly." One dark eye drifted over to examine Naruto as if it could x-ray down to the thoughts in his head. Naruto scowled, crossing his arms and giving the intruder a stink-eye. 'Who does he think he is, budging in here and dragging Aiko away when she just got home?'.

His sister bounded back into the room, wearing twice the weapons she had been before and toting a navy blue knapsack. She nearly barreled Naruto over when she gave him a hug, grinning fiercely and poking his nose. "Eat your junk food tonight, but be sure to cook real food tomorrow, okay? Be good, stay safe, and don't prank Mizuki 'til I get back."

Naruto harrumphed, dutifully leaning back into the hug with his chin resting on her shoulder (and ugh, he was going to be taller than her one day soon, believe it!) and rolling his eyes. "Yes, mother," he drawled, pleased by the attention but too grown-up to tolerate it in front of a stranger. The old guy seemed to flinch, his one visible eye flickering to Aiko's bizarrely colorful hair. Naruto startled and gave the old guy a distrustful stare. He didn't like leaving his sister with a stranger, especially not one this weird.

Unfortunately, no one asked his very excellent opinion and the two ninja sped out of the apartment building, leaving him alone and bored.

________________________________________

Even with all the stamina and speed training she had done since graduation, Aiko had to grit her teeth to cope with the pain in her feet and weakness in her legs after a few hours of running without stop. Kakashi-sensei had been very certain that she had a lot of potential for speed, and it was one of the few things he actually trained her in. He'd been right, but the pace they needed to keep in order to gain ground on a ninja of a higher rank like a Chuunin was wearing on her quickly. Her hip, knee, and ankle joints were all screaming with pain by the time he allowed her to have a break, crouching to speak quietly with the brown, scruffy looking dog he'd summoned. In a moment, he dismissed the dog they'd been following and whipped through hand seals and summoned- is that a pug?

Aiko ignored the ninken that she was pretty sure would answer to 'Pakkun' and drained half a bottle of water, then gulping down a quick dissolve pill that should restore some of the salt she'd lost through sweat and reduce the amino acid burn from the run. She flopped to the forest floor and bent into a straight-legged stretch, trying to calm her heartrate and breathing through sheer force of will.

"Who is this?"

Aiko looked up at the surprisingly deep voice, somehow not surprised to see that the pug had invaded her personal space. When her teacher didn't speak up, she managed to catch her breath enough to briefly introduce herself. "Uzumaki Aiko, happy to meet you."

"Pakkun," the pug said simply. He snuffled at her side, causing her to yelp when she felt his cold nose through her thin shirt. "So this is-"

"My student," Kakashi interrupted smoothly. The dog gave him a look that indicated the two would be having a talk later, but let it slide. He pointedly nudged her tummy with his square head, and Aiko reflexively scratched behind his ears and stroked down his back. His fur was so sort- it was more like petting a bunny than a comparatively coarse dog. The girl couldn't help but smile. It was the first time she'd really met a dog in this lifetime, but the doggy scent he gave off was comforting and very familiar. Maybe she'd been a dog person in her past life.

'Did Pakkun know Kushina and Minato well enough to notice a connection with my scent?' Aiko pursed her lips. It looked that way, which would also explain her teacher's uncharacteristic interruption. He was often rude, yes, but generally through inaction like his failure to introduce the two parties than by actively doing something rude.

"Pakkun, we're on the clock," Kakashi drawled. "Make friends later."

"No respect," the small dog grumbled, reluctantly leaning out of her reach and sniffing around the area. "Yeah, I have the scent. We're damn close. Your prey is weak and slowing down, so we should be able to catch up within the hour at most. Why are you taking your pup on a hunt, boy?"

Aiko almost choked, eyes wider than what she could pretend was dignified. 'I don't think Pakkun talked to Kakashi like that in the manga,' she thought weakly. The idea of her strict teacher being referred to as 'boy'…. It didn't bear thinking about. Said teacher looked more amused than anything.

"Maa, Pakkun, I'm starting to think you don't trust my judgment. I wouldn't have brought the pup if I couldn't keep her safe. This should be an easy introduction to real missions, even if she is still out of shape despite months of my best work," he casually insulted. Aiko felt that eye twitch start up again. She willed the muscle spasm to stop. "Alright, break is over. Let's go." With a sigh, Aiko gave one last stretch and climbed to her feet. As the small group started running again, her teacher let the pug take point and slowed down to run beside her. "You know," he said quietly, "You're going to see your first kill. We don't bring missing nin back alive, but we can't allow them to go and make Konoha look weak either."

Momentarily stunned, Aiko struggled to find her footing on the next landing. Her teacher didn't comment, but she didn't fool herself into thinking he hadn't noticed. "I see," she managed. "I… I suppose that makes sense." It did make a terrible kind of sense. Kakashi was famous as both a ninjutsu specialist and a tracker, and he had spent roughly a decade in ANBU. Of course he got a lot of hunting missions.

"You're a good kid," he said quietly. "I just want you to remember why we're doing this. You got stuck with me for a teacher, so you unfortunately are going to pick up my specialties, like retrieval. This is just a run to gain experience for you. You're going to hang back, and if I assess that the situation is going poorly you will obey my orders immediately. Is that understood?"

"Yes sir," she automatically replied.

His attention slid up front and he leapt ahead at the exact moment Pakkun gave a rough bark. A moment later (it might have been a quarter of a second or up to three whole seconds later, Aiko's brain seemed to have decided it wanted to process time in new and interesting ways) a lithe figure exploded from the tree tops, aiming a hard kick at Pakkun –the throat, it would have him choking in his own blood and knock him off the branch he was perched on, the fall was too far, he couldn't land safely. Her muscles moved without her knowledge to position her so that she could catch him if he fell. The dog couldn't possibly dodge it in time, but her sensei was suddenly there deflecting the blow and forcing her backwards with straight taijutsu.

Aiko felt like her eyes were about to pop out of her head, but she couldn't stop staring. She'd improved her speed by almost a hundred percent since she graduated, but what the fighters were doing was downright insane. She could barely keep track of them as flashes of dark and light and rustles of clothing flickering in the branches of the enormous Konoha trees. It was damn hard to tell, but the Chuunin they'd been sent to retrieve (at least, that was probably the opponent, especially as she'd immediately aimed for the ninken tracking her) appeared to be a dark-haired woman of extraordinarily short stature. 'For some reason, I pictured a nondescript man in uniform.' Aiko tried not to wince. She hadn't really thought of the missing nin as a breathing human being- just a target, a filler character. 'He's going to kill this person,' she dully realized. A real person. She felt her breathing speed up, but couldn't control it. She leapt backwards, keeping both combatants in her vision but painfully aware that she was outclassed and had been told to stay out of the way.

She hadn't realized just how enormous the gulf between a genin and a Chuunin was. It had always seemed so easy and natural- that if she just kept working she would get there one day as a brief stop on the road to being a Jounin who could protect Naruto and herself. But this was insane.

Aiko knew damn well that her sensei was a monster among shinobi- one of the absolute best. But this woman seemed to be keeping up with him surprisingly well, despite the obvious signs that she was drained and desperate. 'She must be a taijutsu specialist,' the ten-year old hypothesized. And wasn't that counterintuitive- to see such a tiny woman holding her own in a physical fight against a tall man.

The whole encounter lasted perhaps twenty seconds and boasted at least three times as many blows, from her desperate charge to the instant when Kakashi slid under the woman's guard and dispassionately snapped her neck. 'A bloodless kill,' Aiko numbly registered. 'So that he doesn't bother Pakkun's nose. He must think we still need to do some tracking.' She only noticed she was shaking when her sensei shot her an inscrutable look.

"Pakkun, check ahead. If she set up traps, I want to disable them before we go. Aiko-chan, come here." She steeled herself, then leapt to her teacher's side with two agile jumps, remaining in a slight crouch over the lump of flesh that was a living breathing human being until very recently. "Do you know how we dispose of bodies?" he asked tonelessly.

'Sealing scrolls?' Aiko twitched, feeling her stomach roil. 'No, don't be stupid. That's an expensive resource, it wouldn't be used for a low-level nin like this. That would only be necessary to collect on a bounty.' She took a steadying breath. "We burn it?"
"Correct. Watch my hands." He steadily worked his way through six hand signs, then breathed in deeply through his nose and pushed one hand out, encased in a flickering orange flame that leapt to cover the body. In an instant, every inch of flesh was shimmering through orange fire- then it blackened, then there was a horrible stench and the corpse crumbled in on itself and burst into greasy ash. Aiko coughed, waving one hand in front of her face to try to keep from breathing the material in. Her sensei dispassionately flipped through three hand signs and blew out a harsh blast of air that scattered the remains through the tree tops.

'The metal didn't burn," Aiko observed. It had been distorted in the sudden heat, but she could still pick out buckles from boots, a thin sludge of what must have been hidden senbon, and two kunai from a thigh holster.

"That was strangely anticlimactic. She was here and now she's dust." Aiko stared blankly at the ash on the wind. A warm hand landed on her head, fingers gently rustling into her hair.

"Being a ninja isn't usually glamorous or climactic," he rumbled. "Most of it is quick, dirty and altogether unpleasant. The types of battles that kids play at in Academy- only the real elites fight that way. It's more of a vanity thing than practical."

"A dick measuring contest," she said without thinking. She actually felt her teacher stiffen. 'Ah, oops, probably not an age-appropriate metaphor,' she realized too late.

"Ah, I suppose," he said, sounding spectacularly uncomfortable. He gave a deep sigh. "Pakkun, report."

"All clear," the dog barked.

"Thank you," he said absentmindedly. The dog had just enough time to nod before he was dismissed. "All right," he sighed, pushing one hand through his hair. It got stuck and he had to tug it out. Aiko forced down an inappropriate smile. "Now we go home and report. Do you want to take a break here? You did well keeping up. I wanted to catch her before she got to the first town, where she might have caused more trouble and complicated the mission."

Aiko consciously didn't look at the branch they were standing on. "No, I'm good." She gave her teacher a weak smile, noting how weary and old he looked. She suddenly wanted to perk him up- he shouldn't look like that. He was only in his twenties. "Come on, old man" she teased, nudging his ribs with her shoulder. "I get it already, you're a total badass. Are you going to make me that fast?"

Her teacher snorted, shoulders relaxing imperceptibly before he took off in a blur of movement. She gave a cry of indignation and hurried to catch up. "You're years away from that," he taunted. "You can barely run in a straight line. I think you should master that before Jounin level taijutsu, eh?"

"I'd be happy if you'd teach me anything instead of beating on me all day," she faux-accused. She really was learning- it just wasn't the kind of thing she could show off. Becoming a faster runner and putting on muscle mass wasn't nearly as cool to demonstrate as crazy taijutsu or elemental jutsu.

She regretted the taunt when her teacher gave a low chuckle. "Well, if my cute little student needs to be taught, I suppose I can dream something up."

________________________________________

The next day, she reported for her promised training and was pleasantly surprised to get her primary element tested.
"Water?" Kakashi's mask moved as if he was biting at his lip (that really didn't hide everything, why had Team 7 been so irritated by it in the anime? It was just a thin piece of fabric). "Well, I'm no expert at that one but I suppose I can get you started. That's my least favorite element," he cheerfully announced.

"Gee, thanks," she grumbled, dropping the soggy paper to the ground. This was her least favorite part of the training ground- she hadn't come here since her accidental cat murder. She very carefully did not look at the scorched earth to her right. 'No one knows. No one will ever know.' She suppressed a twitch. It was like that Poe story with the beating heart. She just couldn't stop thinking about that goddamn cat. And it seemed like there was no way that Kakashi hadn't noticed her discomfort. 'Is that why we're at this specific part of the training ground? Is it just a coincidence? Is he trying to coerce me into confessing?'

"Don't worry, once you've mastered all the water jutsu in the world we can start you on a good element." Aiko drooped. 'Somehow that's not reassuring.' Her teacher coughed lightly. "Pay attention, Aiko-chan."

The technique he'd showed her was bizarre, ill-suited to Konoha's climate, and incredibly familiar.

"You want me to practice turning into a puddle of water," she said blankly, kicking at her sensei. He materialized from the puddle of –well, himself she supposed, and wasn't that ewwww- and grabbed her ankle, giving her a stern look. "I was envisioning something with some sort of combat potential. Or any kind of potential, really. I suppose that'll be useful if I ever get a mission to investigate the soles of rainboots."

"Don't be a smart ass, it doesn't suit you. Did you catch the hand seals?" Obligingly, he ran slowly through them one more time while she copied. "Good. This element transformation should come comparatively easily to you. More importantly, once you have this down, you'll be able to apply the same skill to summon a mist to hide in, make a water clone, and do a couple other nifty tricks, like causing rain in a small area."

Aiko blinked. "Oh," she said dumbly. "That actually does sound useful."

"It's almost like I'm your teacher or something," Kakashi drawled sarcastically. "The hard part is going to be chakra saturation- in order for this to work, you actually need both respectable reserves and the ability to manipulate almost all of it at once. You won't actually lose most of it in the jutsu, but it needs to be transformed from the neutral state to water type."

Aiko found herself alone on the training ground long after her sensei had slunk away for the night, incredibly frustrated. "Why can't I make this fucking jutsu work?" she outright hissed, flinging her hands up and desperately wishing for something or someone that she could hit.

Too stubborn to give up, she abandoned her normal workout routine for the night in order to concentrate on getting down the one jutsu her sensei had trusted her to learn. She thought that she had the first part down, at least. After hours of trial and error, she could now transform the neutral chakra at her stomach, head, and other main gates into water natured chakra easily and quickly. Seeing as how that didn't do anything, however, it clearly became obvious that it wasn't enough. After that it was a rush to either flood her chakra coils with the new water natured chakra or concentrate on changing the lingering remnants of chakra in her coils in the same way she'd changed the stored chakra. Unfortunately, the first method seemed to require an exact speed of release that she hadn't mastered, and the second method seemed to require more concentration than she could boast of. If she focused on the floating chakra, her reserves faltered back into their neutral state.

'I'm going to figure this out if it kills me,' she vowed. She'd never failed at a jutsu before, and she wasn't about to start now.
________________________________________

Kakashi slouched a little further, silver hair tickling the back of his neck. He really needed to do something about it. Eventually. "I admit I had doubts about taking a fresh genin out hunting, but she performed well in the field. She displayed a relatively healthy reaction to seeing a kill under controlled combat conditions. It doesn't seem far-fetched that she could be trained as part of a hunter unit. My initial reservations about whether or not that'd be a waste of a potential front-line type still stand, however. She'll probably excel in either specialty."

The Sandaime Hokage smiled, giving the reporting Jounin his full attention for a split second while he was switching out stamps. "Excellent, Kakashi-kun. I am glad to hear it. I've always heard good things about Aiko while she was in the Academy, but of course that doesn't always translate to field performance."

"Actually, she's weirder in the village," Kakashi mumbled, trying not to think too much about why his student got so damn twitchy every time they went to training ground 7. It was probably safer not to know. He lowered his book to address the Hokage directly, but still held Icha Icha up high enough to obscure most of his face. "But her work ethic is satisfactory. I have been concentrating on her speed and endurance. I would say she's actually on par with experienced Genin in those two areas. She's a rank beginner in taijutsu, of course, and her weapons aren't much better. Now that I'm momentarily satisfied that she can be trusted to make it to a mission, I'm teaching her some mostly evasive jutsu so that she doesn't get skewered by someone out of her league. That would be everyone, of course."

"And to think you claimed you didn't want to train genin for so long," Sarutobi pointed out, not bothering to hide his smile.
Kakashi gave him an uncharacteristically sharp look. "I don't," he said shortly. "But Minato's kids deserve to be taught right. Aiko has her mother's chakra type, which probably makes her our only water type in that generation. I was never good at Kushina's whirlpool style jutsu, but I can teach it to her well enough. She deserves that legacy." He turned his face away from the Hokage's partially sympathetic and partially frustrated expression.

"She isn't her parents," Sarutobi said, a little harshly. He narrowed his eyes, gave the Jounin his full attention and even focused a little bit of intent in his direction. "You understand that?"

"Yes, of course." Kakashi's head twitched into something an optimist might term an incline. "Is that all, Hokage-sama?"
________________________________________
Chapter Word Total: 5,124
Cumulative Word Total: 35,289

Chapter Text

It took another two weeks of work to perfect the technique. Aiko obsessively worked to improve her speed in both initiating and ending the jutsu, and hiding her chakra signature while in it. Her recitation of hand seals was flawless and speedy, and the surface she covered could both be expanded and reduced. In the end, she had to conclude…

"I'm the best water puddle in the whole goddamn village, Kakashi-sensei." Granted, it hadn't rained in Konoha for weeks, so there was little competition on that front. Still…

"I think that I'll be the judge of that."

He wasn't going to take her word for it. She hadn't really expected him to anyways. Pre-emptively, she began transforming the majority of the chakra in her stomach gate.

At his nod, Aiko whipped through the hand seals and sank into the ground. It was a bizarre sensation. Her field of vision sort of extended and flattened so that she could see everything directly above the water surface, but not to the sides or high up. When her jackass of a sensei started dropping twigs and leaves on the surface, she materialized as quickly as she could and flipped backwards.

"Hmm, not too shabby. How are your chakra reserves?" He had re-opened his book at some point, but she knew he was still watching.

Aiko closed her eyes for an instant to check. "They're fine, sensei. Once I managed to figure it out, this technique doesn't really do much to my reserves. Tree walking is much more chakra intensive."

He looked unimpressed. "Have you mastered water walking?" At her cringe, he gave an ominous chuckle. "Well then, you'd better get started on that before I teach you anything else. It would be pretty embarrassing for a water type to not be able to fight on the water. It's your biggest advantage, so you need to get to a point where you don't even think about maintaining it anymore. For all that it doesn't impress in the same way that lightning, wind, or fire do, water is probably the best elemental nature to have in order to control the field. As you are currently a sad little slug of a genin, you need every advantage you can get. I expect to see significant progress on water walking tomorrow. Meet at the usual time."

"So, like ten thirty?" she said dryly.

Her teacher pretended not to hear. "Seven am sharp! Have a good night."

"It's barely noon!" she shouted to the empty space where he had recently been. It didn't really matter anyways, since she started her days at 6 am. She spent forty minutes doing straight taijutsu sparring with Ino before the other girl pranced off to the Academy, then came to training ground seven to do work on either her stamina, aim, or jutsu until her teacher showed up to check her progress with a spar or demonstration. Aiko scowled. 'He's not the most attentive of teachers. He didn't even demonstrate water walking.' No wonder the original team seven had done so poorly under him. It took a certain kind of person to thrive with so little attention, and that type of person wasn't a pre-teen.

It wasn't that Kakashi neglected her training, exactly. The more progress and signs of improvement she had to demonstrate, the longer he spent with her. It made sense, in a way. Why would he waste his time on someone who wasn't dedicated to improving?

'Poor Naruto. That's not your learning style at all.'

She pushed thoughts of her brother and his messed-up future team out of her mind, glaring at her opponent for the day. The stream was barely two feet deep and twice as wide, so at least she wouldn't be getting completely soaked when she inevitably fell in. Delicately, one small sandaled foot settled on top of the water, surrounded by a fan of chakra to maintain surface tension. That went alright. Her control failed altogether as soon as she picked up her other foot.

So she tried again.

And again.

After about twenty complete failures, Aiko stopped and sat on the bank, trying to figure out what was going wrong. Was surface tension not the answer? Was it really just an adhesive effect like what she did when tree walking that she needed, or should she try to stabilize herself with chakra that went down into the water instead of across the surface?

"This would be easier if the water would stop moving," she grumbled to herself.

Then she literally face palmed. Through her palm, she mumbled "I'm an idiot. Of course it'd be easier to figure this out on calmer water first, and then try moving water."

Konoha (being conveniently located in the center of hellishly hot Fire Country) was rather short on lakes, so she ended up making a trip to the onsen. Luckily most people were still at work, and the water was mostly empty. Her progress was much faster here- with still water and barefooted, she figured out that (despite how counterintuitive it seemed to her) all she needed was the adhesive effect. After an hour of work, she had the basic skill down (though a bit wobbly) and had completely drained her chakra.

'I deserve a break.' Aiko sighed contentedly as she completely immersed into the water for the first time… then groaned when she realized that the twigs and leaves that Kakashi had dropped into the Aiko-puddle had apparently nestled in her hair all day. They floated away as she re-surfaced and gave them a disgusted look. The only other person currently in the pool, an unfairly voluptuous older girl with a bottle of apple juice and a book gave an unladylike snort of amusement and spoke for the first time.
"I wondered when you would notice that, kid." The older girl almost had to be a kunoichi. She had a rockin' body, lithe musculature, and thin scars on her hands and arms.

Aiko rolled her eyes in reply. "It's not like it matters." She grabbed the soggy leaves and tossed them over the side of the fence, where they landed with a barely audible plop in the communal pool. The older girl snickered.

"I guess that solved the problem. You're awful young to be trying to water walk, kitten. You really shouldn't play at being a ninja." The woman stretched languorously and ripples gently wavered across the surface of the water.

"And you're awful young to be reading that filthy porn, but I wasn't going to say anything, nee-chan. Isn't that the one with the yaoi threesome?" Aiko drawled in imitation of the other girl's speech. She'd seen Kakashi with the same book not long ago.
Surprised, her companion blinked twice before breaking out into laughter. "Not the answer I expected. I'm Anko, kid. You?"
"Aiko." She examined the older girl in a new light. "How's the book? I asked my sensei once, and he turned bright red and shunshined away". She ran a hand through her short hair, shaking out some of the water. "Didn't see him for two days".

Anko laughed, a surprisingly musical sound. "Nice. It's okay. Full of all sorts of touchy feely crap, so I skip ahead to the good stuff. Politics and sex," she said, sounding more than a little bit satisfied. "The one before was better. The protagonist is a demolitions expert, and also a total hunk. This one is all sneaky infiltration shit- the premise is that the guy has been hired to find out who put a hit out on the princess." She leaned back against the side before glancing around shiftily. "If your prudish teacher asked, I told you that it was shameful and you should never read them."

"I don't think Kakashi-sensei is a prude," Aiko challenged. "I just think he's socially and emotionally handicapped. He really only needs like ten more years of socialization before he learns to stop being so fucking weird all the time." Anko snorted.

"Oy, that bastard's teaching?" She eyed Aiko analytically for the first time. "Hokage-sama must be really desperate for nin if he's promoting babies like you."

Aiko shrugged, not particularly invested in Anko's opinion. "Whatever you say, bitch. I'm okay for a baby genin. I would have stayed in the Academy longer if I could, but they pretty much shoved me out into Kakashi sensei's loving care."

"Sorry to hear that, kitten." Anko took a swig of her apple juice. She caught Aiko eyeing it and gave a sly grin. "I don't share."
"I wasn't asking," Aiko retorted calmly, smiling involuntarily. Anko was a snarky bitch, and she liked that. "What are you up to? Relaxing after a mission or something?"

"Hiding from my boss." The older girl winked. "Ibiki will never look for me here. I swear, he's been trying to drag my ass in to do paperwork on my last five days off. Not today, though. I am going to fill my face with candy, read really nasty porn, and just generally be completely useless all day."

There was a moment of silence. "I'm pretty sure you're my hero." Anko choked, coughing on her juice, losing her cool for the first time.

After she got her breath under control, the older girl pointed at her, not seeming to care that the gesture was rude. "You didn't see that."

________________________________________
"I made a new friend yesterday," Aiko said conversationally. Naruto looked up, not paying attention to his target. His next shuriken was shamefully far from where it should have been. He didn't even notice.

"That's good, I guess."

"Mmhm. She knows tons of really awful curse words and she's going to teach me some of them." Her voice was as bland as if she was discussing the weather. "I mean it, they're really filthy, amazing things I've never considered." She landed a trio of senbon in quick succession, adding to the picture of a smiley face she was constructing. Naruto gave her picture a glance and made a face, scowling at his own unpierced target and the shuriken anywhere from two inches to a foot away from it. ""Mind your wrist. You're flicking it like you would for a kunai and throwing the star off balance."

"Yeah, yeah." Naruto sighed, stiffening his wrist obediently. "I don't see why I have to learn a second projectile. The Academy only requires one for graduation."

"Their requirements are lame. You're going to be better than your classmates." She made a nearly-perfect circle for the left eye and made a face at the one needle that hit slightly off target. The other eye was better.

Her little brother sighed, slouching over despondently. "You're so mean to me, Aiko-chan."

"Sounds about right," she mumbled distractedly, considering making a vertical line through the wonky eye and pretending it was her teacher's Sharingan. For all she knew it was lumpy. She'd never seen it in person. Instead of thinking too hard about it, she made the line. Her brother's eye caught the movement.

"That's an ugly face." Aiko rolled her eyes and nudged her brother with a shoulder to force him out of her personal space, completing it with three little dots in the wonky eye.

"Whatever, you big bully. Let's go home. It's getting too dark for target practice." She pulled her needles out of the target, bunched them and wrapped a thin ribbon around the cluster before sliding the whole thing back into her thigh holster. At her side, Naruto gathered his shuriken, giving them dirty looks all the while. "Hey, how is the campaign against Mizuki-bastard going?"

Naruto perked up at the mention his long-term vendetta. "Hey, hey, you wanna help as a favor or an early birthday present? He found the squid a few days ago, so it's just about time for his counter move. I predict that, much like the last four hundred times, he will retaliate by putting me in detention and grading my Monday test down."

If she were a different person, Aiko might have tried to curtail her brother's mischievous nature. His pranks were immature and made people dislike him. But they were just so… so Naruto. The only thing she tried to do was aim him in more appropriate directions (Poor Iruka was a nice guy who deserved a break occasionally). Mizuki, on the other hand, was a gigantic prick. Even if he hadn't been a traitor (she wasn't going to assume he was, what she knew might not be totally accurate) he still had no place around children. It wasn't just Naruto's education that he was damaging. Thusly, he had the privilege of suffering the lion share of Naruto's attention.

"Ah, that's a tricky one. May I suggest something subtle and refined? Do you know what kind of sandals he wears? We'll need to know the size."

"Uh, yeah." Naruto tugged at the collar of his orange shirt (apparently, some things were unavoidable. At least it wasn't a jump suit). "Three pairs, I think. Two are the standard blues, one is black with a wider band. All size 10 from the standard outfitters, minor wear and tear. He takes good care of his stuff." He paused for a moment to cackle, fingers held up into hooked claws.
"Alright. We're going to go buy three 9 ½ pairs of shoes and rough 'em up. I'll make the switch while he's sleeping". She was much better than she'd like to be at creeping on sleeping ninja. "We'll have to have something a little more obvious, so that he thinks he knows how you retaliated. Standard paint job?"

"His house, I think. It's relatively isolated, one story 400 square foot. I think I can paint one side nicely in an hour, but a slap job in probably less than fifty minutes. I hate to do bad work, though." He scrunched up his nose.

Aiko huffed. "Don't be ridiculous, I would never ask you to undermine your artistic integrity like that. What kind of sister do you think I am?" He elbowed her.

"Love you, nee-chan."

"Love you too, nii-chan."

________________________________________

"Sennnnnseeeiiii. Sensei. Seeeeennnnnnseeeeeeei."

"What do you want, foul demon?" Kakashi muttered from behind his book, being careful to keep the pages out of her view. He wasn't going to be responsible for giving a ten year old access to adult materials. He'd teach her to kill, steal, and commit tax fraud, sure. Those were time-honored ninja traditions. But he firmly believed that access to adult materials should be restricted until a ninja was mature enough to realize they could abuse henge to buy it on their own.

He was a little surprised that she hadn't figured that out yet.

"This was my forty-second D rank mission, sensei. I was hoping that since you are so very fond of me, you would consider taking me on a C rank, if you think I can handle one." She leaned in obnoxiously close. "You know, since it's my birthday and all."

Kakashi gave her a wilted look. "Ninja don't have birthdays," he said shortly before turning back to his book. Jiraiya-sama really did write such marvelous love scenes. His heart stopped everytime he got to the part where the clever bodyguard first realized the servant girl he'd fallen for was the princess in disguise under the cherry trees…

His student gave an obnoxious sigh. "Sure they do, you must have had like sixty of them. Surely you remember at least one. If not, maybe I should return you to the Hokage for a newer model Jounin. I'm way too adorable to get stuck with a defective one."

"Ten laps around the village. Go." The cheeky brat actually stuck her tongue out at him before she cheerfully took off. She knew damn well it wasn't really a punishment- she normally ran eight after he 'left'.

As far as genin went… Well, he'd gotten a pretty good one. Then he snorted. 'Of course she's a good nin, with a pedigree like that.' He semi-frequently checked on her training when she thought she was alone, if he wasn't running one of his real missions out of the village. The fact that he couldn't really be taken entirely off the roster was probably slowing her progress, but it couldn't be helped. Her work ethic was fairly impressive and hilarious, as was whatever the hell she was doing to that poor Chuunin Academy teacher. Was it possible to bully a superior, or was 'psychological warfare as a hobby' a more accurate description?

Regardless.

'Would it really be so terrible to take her on a real mission?'

He'd been delaying that for a while. If he'd had a team, they would have been out in the field for quite a while. But taking an apprentice out was different. She wouldn't have any support if he got caught up with an opponent far beyond her level.
She'd been a genin for over half a year, however. Aiko certainly wasn't Academy fresh, and she couldn't do D-ranks for her whole career… no matter how safe that would make her. Minato probably wouldn't have wanted a safe little princess for a daughter. Not when she'd trained as a ninja.

Kakashi sighed, putting away his book. While his loyal little minion (and she really was loyal, wasn't she? This was the first time she'd complained about all that busy work…) was busy running, he ran across town on the rooftop highway and straight in through the window of Hokage Tower. Sarutobi looked up from his enormous stacks of paperwork, mildly surprised and not entirely concealing the ink drying on the side of his face from where he'd used something wet as a pillow.

"Kakashi-kun? What's this visit about?"

He hmmed, feeling a little sheepish for running over on impulse outside of office hours. It was lucky that the Sandaime liked him. "Well, you see, I thought we had a meeting yesterday, so I rushed here right away. I got trapped in my apartment when I lost my keys. They were in the fridge."

"Naturally," the Sandaime said dryly. "I don't believe we had one planned, but since you're here, why don't we talk."

"I was considering taking my genin out of the village on a C-rank," he explained, rubbing his head a little sheepishly. "But I was hoping we could find a nice, safe one. Possibly one ten or less miles out of the village with a secret ANBU escort. I could settle for any Jounin whose name doesn't rhyme with 'Saito Sai,' though. She's awfully impressionable. She's started repeating things I've only heard from Anko before."

The Sandaime covered his face with both hands, amused. "Now, keep in mind that I haven't checked, but I think we're fresh out of those missions. How about a nice, easy escort mission? Standard bandit prevention type work. You know, you've already taken her out once on a more dangerous mission."

"Yes, but I had less time to think about that, and we were certain there was only one opponent." He considered the Hokage's suggestion of an escort mission. Those were pretty long missions- civilians travel slowly. "Sounds risky," he said, more to himself than the Hokage before raising his voice just a little. "You know, I think this was a mistake. She's starting to get really good at finding discarded weaponry on the academy training grounds and the Councilman's kids really like her. Maybe I should let her do that for just a while longer." Yeah. That sounded like a pretty good plan. Escort missions could go wrong, very wrong. The client could be lying, the client could be a drug dealer with a hit out on them and powerful enemies, they could run into missing nin out to collect on his enormous bounty, or someone might see his adorable little genin and want to kidnap her and-

"Kakashi-kun, you're hyperventilating." The old man sighed. "I know it's hard to take a long mission with a fresh genin, knowing that her life is in your hands. But you can't keep her in the village forever. First of all, I think that Kushina might well rise up from the dead to beat you senseless for underestimating her baby."

She probably would.

"It's not that I don't have faith in her," he protested weakly. "It's more that…"

"You don't have faith in yourself as a leader. Kakashi-kun, you haven't lost a subordinate on a mission since… well, only once in your career." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I'll have a mission picked out tomorrow. Now go home. I'm going to," he mumbled the last bit to himself.

"Hai, Hokage-sama," he said, not entirely sure if he'd just won or lost.

________________________________________

"You know, when I pictured my ninja escort, I imagined someone a little taller."

"That's okay," Aiko said blandly. "I'm just flattered you spend so much time thinking about me when I'm not around."
"Wait, what?" The civilian boy blinked, but Aiko was already on the opposite end of the group, waiting for orders from her teacher.

They had gotten assigned to a small group of merchants headed to Suna. There was big business to be had transporting grains, sugars, and plant clippings to the desert after they were harvested. Seeing as they were mostly transporting comestibles, it was unlikely that the caravan would be specifically targeted by bandits, but that didn't protect them from standard roadside dangers.
Three different businesses were sending merchandise on this trip. Two of them were family affairs, staffed with younger sons and daughters learning the trade under an aunt's supervision, but the third was sending only a grim-faced hired hand.
A C-ranked mission would normally be staffed with either a three-man Chuunin team, four veteran genin, or a Jounin with three fresh genin. Despite the fact that her sensei was an elite for whom this mission was a total joke, Aiko was still a little nervous that they were technically understaffed. She certainly wasn't the equivalent of three genin.

Despite those misgivings, she knew better than to let the clients sense her nerves. Panicked civilians helped nothing.
Her sensei didn't seem worried at all. 'I wish I could be as calm as he is. Sensei is actually really cool.' Aiko snuck a glance at him. He wasn't reading for once. Maybe he couldn't in front of paying clients?

"I want you to take point. I'm going to be at the rear. Pay attention. There's little risk, but it'll be you who spots any potential ambushes."

Aiko swallowed. "Hai, sensei." She walked to the front normally- she'd gotten a brief lecture about frightening civilians with unnecessary displays of ninja skills two days ago when she got the notice for this mission.

It had been lucky that she'd had so much time to get ready. She worried at her lower lip with her teeth. 'Poor Naruto. He's never been alone this long before…' The rush to get packed and make sure she had all the appropriate gear had kept her busy pretty much the whole time when she wasn't going over procedures. Having never been out of the village for any period of time, she needed all new standard gear for extended travel in addition to special additions for the desert climate she would be suffering through.

For now she was in her normal clothes, but she had an identical (though long-sleeved) set in a pretty shade of yellow that wouldn't be quite so hot as her normal black to change into, as well as a long white scarf for her face and hair. Her sensei still seemed to be a bit baffled by her civilian-esque leggings and tunic, but he didn't tell her that she had to get standard gear.
Kakashi-sensei had even been kind enough to point out just how useful her water natured chakra would be in the desert. It was much easier for her to augment existing water supplies, but it was possible for her to use her jutsu using only the trace amounts of moisture in the environment. It wouldn't be easy, especially in a desert, but she would never need to worry about thirst.

Actually, the discussion had made her feel a little special and stupidly lucky. Water and wind natured chakra types were both incredibly rare outside of their respective countries, as chakra type was affected by genetics and to a smaller extent the environment a child was raised in. Konoha's ninja were generally fire, earth, or lightning type (in that order of probability). Through pure dumb luck, she was one of less than ten water-types in Konoha's active forces.

That didn't mean she was feeling cocky, however. Her jutsu arsenal was currently a bit pathetic, and completely useless for combat in the environment she was headed to. Aiko scanned ahead as the group passed out of sight of the village. She didn't really expect any enemies within their borders, but caution was better than a failed mission.

Paying attention was all well and good, but that didn't mean she wasn't a little bummed about missing so much training time. After she had mastered hiding in a puddle, she had easily jumped to creating the Hiding in the Mist technique and the jutsu that would create a small rain effect. Those two were pretty useless so far, however, because she didn't have the other skills to go with them. Obscuring vision would do little good unless she had both the skills to hide within it and ways of tracking targets non-visually. As was, the mist would harm her performance about as much as it would an opponent, possibly more. The rain wasn't much better- it could be used as a sensory technique or as a method of dispersing poison (or as a prequel to hiding in a puddle or frying some motherfuckers with lightning). She didn't have the skills for any of that, nor a penchant for poisoning. Really, right now it was useful for gardening and not much else.

Aiko pulled herself out of depressing thoughts about her status as a sad, useless little Genin beginner to send out a chakra pulse as a scouting tool. She found nothing, as expected.

'Really, what was I doing asking for a higher class mission?' She hadn't really expected to get one so quickly. In a way it was touching that her teacher had fulfilled her request so quickly. But she really wasn't ready for real missions. At this point, she could only be a burden.

Depressing.

The bird calls in the area were familiar, but the way that their clumsy civilian clients made enough noise to scare them off wasn't. Aiko kept track of how distant the sounds appeared to be at any given time. Apparently she had better hearing for birds than they did for civilians. Her eyes flickered to the side. That was a freaking miracle. Those wagons were loud, and so was the cluster of teenagers who were already whining about the walk.

She didn't quite understand that. It had only been about four hours since they left the outlier village where they had met their civilian clients. For all that Kakashi-sensei teased her about being out of shape, Aiko could run for miles without problems, as long as she could stay hydrated. Minato and Kushina must have been amazing, because they passed on some rockin' genetics. Her mature mind had been enough to pass her off as an academic prodigy, but if she hadn't had serious physical potential too then she wouldn't have been promoted at ten. In the seven months since her graduation, Kakashi had pushed her to almost triple her speed. Individual instruction was an incredible tool for speeding up training. She was relatively certain now that she would be able to beat her old sparring partner… Or at least, she would have been if he hadn't been improving too. She made a face. There was no way he hadn't improved. He would be graduating soon, wouldn't he? He'd started three terms after she had, not a full year, meaning that he was probably closer to being two years older her than one. More importantly, Neji was still probably a total bastard.

Though the snail's pace was killing her and she was bored past the point of tears, Aiko dutifully channeled chakra to her ears for a short period to augment the sense when she noted it had been a while since she made a non-visual check. Nothing strange. Kakashi's hunter specialization meant that he'd had plenty of little tricks to pass on about finding opponents. She was a rank amateur at all of them, but a low-risk mission would probably be the place to improve on them.

Shadows were playing in the forest now. Calmly, she scanned the treetops, branches and underbrush for any signs of movement or tracks. "Well make camp here." Surprised, Aiko turned around to see her sensei indicating a spot slightly off the path. As the group settled and the civilians cheerily started cooking over open fires, Aiko made her way to her teacher. "After we eat, I'll take first watch." He pulled out his book and easily flipped it open to a page in the middle. "Do you want to try your hand at hunting, or should I get a rabbit?"

"I'll do it," she mumbled, wanting to be useful. "Preferences?"

"Hmm, not really." He flipped a page, although there was like, no way he'd read the last one already. "Don't go too far."
She snorted a little rudely. "I'm not going to find wildlife very close," Aiko said quietly.

"Closer than you think." He sighed. "Go on, now."
________________________________________
Chapter Word Total : 4,945
Cumulative word: 40,234

Chapter Text

Even her thin yellow shirt felt heavy on the shoulder blades, plastered as it was with disturbingly warm sweat.

'Isn't the purpose of sweat to cool us down?'

Aiko tried not to wheeze, feeling a painful dryness in her throat. She just wasn't used to the dry, hot air in Suna. Now that they were within sight of Suna, she and Kakashi were walking together at the end of the group. There was no point in trying to rush ahead of the civilians they were escorting.

Said civilians were currently talking with two nin who were probably the equivalent of Konoha's Chuunin gate guards- a gangly teenage boy who didn't yet have the muscle for his broad shoulders and a woman who was probably in her early to mid twenties.

With their paperwork verifying they had contracts to sell in Sand, the merchant wagons would get in with only a brief but incredibly invasive search of their goods and persons. The two Konoha ninja, on the other hand, would not exactly be welcomed, and not just because they were more likely to be dangerous than civilians. Their contract was a two-way trip, which meant that not only was Suna having to accept multiple foreign ninja in their village, those foreign ninja were actually taking business that Suna should have had.

It was strange and shitty, but Suna had been performing very poorly lately and losing a lot of missions. Aiko wouldn't have known that without the pre-mission briefing. She was under strict orders that basically boiled down to not acting like a jackass and causing extra tension between their villages.

"Next," the thin stern-faced kunoichi conducting the searches gestured for the last wagon to pull up while the others happily escaped into the village, eager to get out of the midday sun. Aiko sighed, leaning her head against her teacher's side and nestling into his arm. He firmly but gently put his hand on her head and pushed her off.

"Personal space, Aiko-chan." He steered her away until his arm was fully outstretched in a phenomenal display of social awkwardness.

She scoffed. "Don't pretend you don't like it." Still, she didn't try to lean on him again. It was too hot to touch another living being anyway.

"Okay, Konoha shinobi. Papers?" Kakashi smoothly moved forward to deal with the Chuunin guard. Aiko involuntarily grimaced, eyes bulging when his voice dropped half an octave from its already low pitch to something incredibly smooth and sexy. He leaned forward, tilting his head suggestively and somehow looming. The Chuunin who had previously looked so aloof was biting at her lip and tucking a lock of spiky brown hair behind her ear.

'Oh, ewwww.' Aiko gagged, turning her face away. The Chuunin's coworker gave her a sympathetic look. "Yeah, that's pretty gross." He ran a hand through his short hair and made a face.

"Oh, your student is cleared." The woman handed back a sheaf of papers that she couldn't possibly have properly examined. Aiko and her new comrade-in-disgust snorted in unison.

"How nice," her teacher purred. Aiko felt her stomach turn. "Why don't you go check on our reservation at the inn?" Aiko eyed her teacher for just a second- she'd never seen him act like this. And it had been very sudden… 'He's up to something. I suppose I should play along.'

"What a coincidence," she said flatly, locking her face into an impassive expression. "I'm going to leave."

"You do that," he said distractedly. 'Definitely an act, he's always paying attention.' It seemed to fool the Suna nin, though. The kunoichi giggled, heavy lidded eyes blinking slowly while she preened under what appeared to be his undivided attention.

"You've scarred me for life," she said a little viciously. Her teacher merely crinkled his visible eye. Aiko snatched her papers in a fist and stomped off, practically fuming. She then proceeded to get completely, hopelessly lost. "All these buildings look alike," she said a little defensively to herself. 'I should probably go back and ask where the hotel is…' She curled her toes in her open-front sandals, wishing she could keep the sand out. She'd only been in the desert for a few days, and she was already ridiculously sick of it.

"Oh come on," she quietly cursed. "It's only been like six minutes since I walked in the gaaate," she whined under her breath.
Much like Konoha, Suna was arranged to be confusing to outsiders. Unfortunately, she wasn't familiar with Suna at all. The streets were nearly empty, which made some sense. It was the hottest part of the day. The few people she did see under shady outcroppings or by windows gave her strange looks. 'How is it obvious that I'm an outsider to absolutely everyone around?' She tried to compare her clothing to that of the civilians she'd seen. It didn't seem to be very different. A little brighter in color, maybe.

"What are you doing here."

Aiko shrieked, stepping back and bringing one hand up to her throat. "Kami, you startled me," she breathed. A boy about her own age was giving her a stink-eye through messy bangs. He was another example of the exotic hair colors in this world. It looked like it came out of a box. She would have thought it was brown if it weren't for the red glinting in the sunlight and nearly blinding her.

Judging by the way he'd snuck up on her, he was a shinobi. She probably would have guessed that from the bandages holding down the edges of his pants anyways.

"You don't belong here."
"Well, sorr-yyy," she grumbled. "Looking for the Two Flowers hotel. Wanna help me so I don't spend all night wandering around your town?"

He blinked slowly, mouth twisting into a sneer. "Foreign moron. You're going the wrong way. The blue building over there," he pointed out.

"Uh, thanks Sunshine." She gave a loose salute and set off in the direction he indicated, but was cut off by a mean-faced teen with the wildest blonde hair she'd ever seen.

"You didn't explain why you're wandering around where you don't belong, brat."

"Making friends, Aiko-chan?" Her personal savior and teacher was suddenly there, looking very tall and serious. The kunoichi exchanged glances with her comrade, less sure about harassing an adult.

"Something like that, sensei." Aiko wound her arm through her teacher's elbow. "I thought I was going to be lost forever. Shinobi-san over there pointed me in the direction of our hotel. Kunoichi-san was just talking about how much she likes my hair. I like hers too."

"I'm sure," he said dryly. "Is there a problem here?"

The older girl narrowed her eyes at the two foreign nin. "I suppose not. Come on, otouto." The two sand nin left in a blur. Despite the theatrics, they weren't actually far above her level, if at all. She caught sight of them tapping away on the rooftops. 'A poor shunshin.'

Aiko turned her full attention to her sensei. "Thanks. I take it you actually know where to go?"

"Of course." He started walking, presence diminished once again to his normal slumping 'harmless and barely awake' look. There was something incredibly disturbing about just how convincing that act was, even when she damn well knew better. "I wasn't expecting you to go very far. Most of Suna's citizens aren't overly enthused about outsiders."

"I wasn't expecting you to ditch me in a foreign power for a pretty face," Aiko grumbled, kicking up a small cloud of dust. Her teacher gave her a mildly amused look.

"Maa, so uncute. You don't have any faith in me, do you?" He sighed quietly. "Would it restore your respect in me if I told you that I was both speeding us into the village by easing possible tensions over our presence and distracting her from realizing that I was gauging the political climate?" His voice was completely bland.

'The worst part is that I believe him. If he was really trying to get laid, he wouldn't do it on a mission around his 11 year old subordinate.'

Aiko rolled her eyes fondly. "Don't worry, I'll respect you in the morning." Her sensei eyed her at the slight innuendo, clearly trying to gauge if it was intentional. She kept a straight face. Possibly the best thing about her situation was that she constantly got to mess with people who were unnerved by a pre-teen girl making dirty jokes. She was milking it for all she was worth- Kakashi-sensei would figure out pretty soon that she was aware of what she was saying. The game was only fun when people were kept off-balance, trying to figure out if they were perverts for hearing innuendo from a child's lips.
She carefully didn't cackle or even smile on the walk to their hotel.

"One room please, two beds."

The tall woman behind the counter gave her teacher an unimpressed once-over, then a pointed look at the pre-teen girl he was asking to share a room with. Aiko blushed at the implication, but her teacher didn't react in the slightest. He merely waited for the room key, locked into pleasant detachment until the wrinkled crab behind the counter gave up and forked it over, giving him the evil eye all the while.

"Is it really so strange to share a room with your teacher?" she asked in an undertone while they took the stairs.

"No," he said shortly. He pulled out his book and lovingly opened it for the first time in quite a while, now that there was no risk of getting sand in it. He gently ran a finger down the spine, expression softening for the first time she'd ever seen. "That woman was just a pervert."

Aiko twitched. 'I wish I could tell whether or not he's intentionally using irony.'

________________________________________

Waiting for their clients to unload all of their merchandise in exchange for a whole lot of money was pretty boring. When she was lying awake in bed the first night, Aiko wondered if the blonde kunoichi she'd met had been Temari- which would make the boy either Kankuro or Gaara. Much more likely Kankuro, as Temari probably wouldn't spend her free time with Gaara.

'Don't be stupid.' She rolled over onto her tummy, sliding both arms around her pillow, trying to burrow even further under the hotel-provided covers. Suna was kind of a shithole- she cooked alive during the day and shivered all night. 'You can't assume that the first two shinobi you meet in Suna just happen to be the older two Sand Siblings. Blonde and reddish hair must just not be that rare in sand.'

Still, the thought lingered. She kept an eye out over the next few days, but didn't see either of them.
Her teacher amused himself with books and using their mission budget in teahouses, but Aiko was bored out of her skull and anxious to get back to training. Kakashi made it clear, however, that practicing ninja skills within the borders of a foreign power was actually considered provocative and possibly hostile. For some strange reason, it made people nervous to see foreign military powering up jutsu, sprinting around or looking too interested in the environment.

After some consideration, she decided that being the cause of a diplomatic incident was slightly worse than missing out on training. Because she couldn't stand sitting around all day, she walked. Aiko wandered the streets from sun up until it was time to have a light meal, went to sleep, and woke up again after the worst of the heat had passed. She washed and re-wore her warmest clothes (and the light clothes layered under) and went out for the first few hours after dark, when the village lit up for a short time with music floating out from open doors and candy cooking. Apparently, it was customary to do socializing right after dark. It was very strange to a Konoha-raised girl. In her experience, the nightlife was for adults- definitely not a family affair like it was here. It wasn't raucous where the adults were drinking, either. Apparently Suna natives were relatively reserved even when partying it up.

It took a while, but Aiko managed to join in on the third night, slipping around the desert like a native. Her training in attention to detail helped- she learned how to wear her scarf like a native (her previous arrangement was apparently just Not Done for some reason) and switched out her standard issue blues for closed shoes she found in the market.

The group she had joined all seemed to be a little older than her- a group of civilians who were probably thirteen or so. Either they didn't mind her age or she could pass for a short teen, because she had no shortage of partners to laughingly help her through the steps of a dance she'd never seen before.

Instead of the partnered dances she was used to, it was apparently vogue in Sand to form concentric circles. The movements involved a motion like they were passing something around from hand to hand, circling partners, and rapid swirling. Aiko laughed, giddy. She wasn't the best dancer there, but the advantage of several years' worth of taijutsu training was enough that she could do a decent job of remembering the movements.

"Now turn!" listening to her new friend, a slim girl with black hair and teal eyes, Aiko spun quickly and crossed her arms at the wrists above her hand, then brought them apart to interlock her fingers with the girls on either side. The group quick-stepped inward and twisted, creating a tangle of arms above their heads.

Then the screaming started. It didn't last long, which was almost more disturbing than anything, as it choked off very suddenly. Aiko immediately freed her hands and turned in the direction it was coming from, but her civilian companions wasted a few long moments in confusion, as did the musicians. Whoever had made the sound had only been a few blocks away. The flutes and stringed instruments trickled to a stop, and the crowds began to move and murmur uneasily. The teal-eyed girl laid a hand on Aiko's shoulder. "You should go back to your room," she said quietly. "Come on."

Sure enough, the crowd was dispersing- swiftly, but in an orderly way she wouldn't have expected. The people were more nervous and annoyed than panicked- almost as if this was a routine occurrence.

"Why?" she hissed. "Do you know what's going on?"

"I have a pretty good idea," the older girl said grimly, steering her down the street. "But they won't give us the details. Any minute now they'll be sending out the order to clear the streets." An older boy with coloring similar to her new friend pushed out of the crowd and gave the two girl a tight smile.

"Alright there, Chiye?"

"Maa, maa," Chiye mumbled to the boy who almost had to be her brother. "Did you hear anything?"

"They think that freak killed someone," he said quietly. His eyes flickered over to the west. "Quieted down real fast, didn't it?"
"Quiet, you want to get taken away?" Chiye hissed. "Bishamon, this is Aiko. Can you take her back to her hotel?" The older boy barely looked at her before he agreed.

"That really won't be necessary," Aiko waved her hands. "I'll find it."

"Better safe than sorry. Relax, this is my cousin, he lives in that direction and he'll get you there safely. It would be pretty poor hospitality for you to walk alone across town. I'm going to catch up with my mom. Be safe, you too." She hastily hugged the older teen and pushed her way towards the other side of the street, quickly disappearing into the crowd.

"Let's go." The streets were quickly clearing as people filed into houses. Before too long they were almost alone. A siren of some sort went off. Aiko turned to look, but Bishamon indicated that she shouldn't look around. He stared straight forward, businesslike and as impassive as he could manage. "It's coming from the central tower, telling us to go inside. It's the same alarm that indicates a sandstorm, but in this case it just generally means the village is going into lockdown and that the streets are unsafe."

Conversation ended after that. He left her in the lobby and took off at a run, clearly anxious to get home. Aiko walked slowly through the halls, marveling at how strangely empty it was. The hotel's public areas weren't usually this empty unless it was the middle of the night, when it got cold enough to force even her inside.

Her teacher stopped his pacing and eyed her when she came in. He didn't make any obvious changes in expression or body language, but she got the sense that he was relieved. In response to her unasked question, he shrugged. "Whatever is going on here was apparently something they didn't want me seeing. When the siren started I went to look for you, but a helpful group of Jounin escorted me back to the room." His attention flickered to the window. They'd been given a room without glass or curtains, only a thin screen to keep out sand. Most windows in Suna were like that, but… 'We're being monitored,' she realized. That made some sense- they'd have to be really stupid to let foreigners wander around unobserved. She subtly flashed her next question through handsigns.

Do you think they can hear us?

"No," he said easily, "but they can probably read your lips." He didn't have to explain that his mask made that impossible for anyone to do to him. Aiko scowled and considered the benefits of a mask for the first time.

She went and sat on her bed, turning her back to the window. "I got the impression that the civilians I was with knew what happened," she confided quietly. "One of them said something that implied a well-known figure had killed someone and that this was unsurprising. They were worried about being overheard, which hints that whoever this is, they're protected by someone powerful." She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. Now that she wasn't moving, she was starting to feel cold.

'Is Gaara the 'freak' they mentioned? It seems likely. Not many domestic issues would send a village into lockdown like this.' Her heart pounded at the notion. 'At this point, he's really dangerous. I don't want to mess with whatever is going on here.'

Her teacher absorbed the information silently before giving a slight nod. "I see. Well, it's beyond our mission parameters, so we're not doing anything unless we're attacked."

"Hai, sensei," she agreed, slipping into formality as a source of comfort from the strange situation.

They weren't allowed to leave their room for twenty four hours. Their food was delivered directly to their door- an assortment of plain brown rice and vegetables. Aiko found herself incredibly grateful to be with a professional- Kakashi checked all the food for poisons easily and quickly. Her academy-trained mind was more than a bit uncomfortable eating food that she hadn't seen prepared.

"One of the few medical jutsu I know," he commented when he caught her staring as his hand lit up with green. "I'll teach you eventually, if your control is good enough."

Overnight they received a message from one of their clients- the group was ready to go back home, and were being pressured to get out. They didn't say that, exactly, but the two could read between the lines. They packed up their meager supplies and met with their clients at the same gate they'd entered, followed the entire way by less-than-inconspicuous Suna nin, as if to make a point.

Kakashi sighed. "Well, off on another adventure." Aiko stared up at her teacher for a long moment, and then shook her head as if to ward off his weirdness. It was safer not to reply to that.

The first four days of their trip back to where they'd met the caravan passed in bland monotony, where the only excitement was the first time that someone spotted greenery. Well. Other than the occasional "Eek! Look, there's a scorpion/snake/poisonous rabbit, kill it with fire!" (everything in this desert was poisonous, from the animals to the cacti to even the rocks). Only a few hours of walking after that exciting discovery got them out of the desert proper and into a sort of scrubland with bushes and ratty grass that was slightly less fiendishly hot. After almost two weeks in the desert, it was a welcome change in scenery and temperature.

Aiko was still incredibly frustrated by the pace- if they had traveled at ninja speeds, even a genin like her could have made the trip from Konoha to Suna in less than four days. It apparently took civilians something like eleventy billion years. She half expected to evolve spurs or poison sacs like a desert creature before she ever made it home.

She considered sharing that theory with her teacher, but didn't want to risk it. He didn't seem like the kind of person who would allow whining on a mission.

Kakashi-sensei was a wall of professionalism and impassivity the entire trip back. It seemed a little strange for her giggly, porn-reading teacher, but Aiko eventually decided to think of it as his 'game face'. The only other option was some sort of dissociative personality disorder. She didn't want to think she'd been given to a teacher with such blatant issues, so 'game face' it was.

She was almost grateful when the bandits attacked.

Aiko sensed them long before they came out of cover and had a staccato conversation with her teacher in the Konoha equivalent of Morse code, casually drifting to more tactical positions.

Six civilians, her teacher tapped. Also one low genin/high academy level. Do not engage first.

Fatalities or subdue? She signed back, not knowing the tap code. He slowly blinked through a heavy-lidded gray eye, lowering his head very slightly into a nod.

Standard. Well, that answered that. No one wanted more bandits running around that would menace future genin teams.
It was an unfortunate fact of life for civilian soldiers/mercenaries that engaging in only the physical aspects of shinobi-like activity would give them very distinctive chakra signatures. Only shinobi learned how to hide their chakra signatures from sensing techniques, so even her tenuous grasp of sensory awareness was enough to make it impossible to surprise her when she was paying attention.

Her teacher took the rear, the most likely location for a good ambush to strike. Of course, if they weren't good, they would attack from the front. A middling attack would probably come from the side. With her position in the middle of the group, she was relatively ready to respond to any mediocre opponents.

And were they ever mediocre. Their ambush took place along a long stretch of straight road two lanes wide-plenty of room to move- with little cover. She sighed and tried not to face-palm in embarrassment that her first real combat experience was with a bunch of dorks hiding behind bushes. They attempted to stand up at once and menace the group, the leader growling out his terms (hand over your money and no one gets hurt, yadda yadda). Kakashi ended that quickly with a casually tossed kunai to the forehead. As the man stupidly fell over, cross eyed, his companions rushed the group.

It was very quick. Her teacher seemed to want it to be a learning experience- he kept his one visible eye on her fights while he half-heartedly kept four of the amateur bandits away from their clients. They didn't seem enthusiastic about fighting him- they doubtlessly hadn't expected shinobi. "None of these are going to have a bounty worth collecting," he called mildly. "Go on, that one looks easy." He gently batted a man holding a long, chipped blade in her direction. He looked a bit offended.
'It's like a mama cat teaching a kitten to hunt…'

Despite how ludicrous the situation seemed, the combination of rote taijutsu and the ingrained need to follow her sensei's orders got her through the fight. She easily crushed her first opponent's trachea, outright surprised when he didn't block the beginner's move and fell, dead. 'That was easy. Should it be this easy?' She turned at the sound of furious screaming and slipped under the sword that tried to gut her.

Aiko didn't have to think about the movements that had her plant a fist into his gut, swing him over her shoulder and then bring the man to the ground and force him into a submission hold in less than two seconds. She pushed his wrists all the way up to his shoulder blades held criss-cross and crouched with one foot firmly on his lower back. A moment later she realized her mistake- that gave her time to think, and she didn't know that she could finish him when he couldn't fight back. She sat frozen, holding his arms twisted up behind his back in a way that had to hurt for someone who didn't have the flexibility of a shinobi. If she'd been alone, one of the other seven original attackers might have finished her while she was stunned.

Kakashi, long since finished, crouched at her side. "All right there?"

"Hai, sensei. What… what should I do?" She jerked her head at the one survivor, who only now seemed to realize the sounds of fighting had died down. He began shrieking something incomprehensible, eyes wide with terror.

Kakashi didn't appear to have sympathy. "Why don't you go assure our clients that everything is fine? I'll finish up here." He firmly pressed a hand on the back of the restrained bandit's neck, forcing him into stillness. Aiko stumbled away, suddenly feeling sick. A horrible snapping sound filled the air behind her, but she didn't turn to look. All she wanted to look at was her hands. She stared with a terrible focus. They looked like they always did. Less than two minutes ago, she'd killed a man with them as easily as she used them to eat rice. She wasn't even sweating.

'It's not supposed to be that easy.' She pressed her hands to her chest, trying to stop the shaking. That had probably not even been twenty pounds of force. She'd gotten harder hits from Neji in the academy. How was a grown man so fragile?
'Don't be stupid,' she thought fiercely, suddenly angry with herself. 'You knew what you were getting into. Shinobi kill people. And they would have killed our clients if we weren't here.' She knew damn well that shinobi got some morally dubious orders, but this wasn't one of them. This was protecting people. That's different. While her teacher took care of the –mess, took care of the mess, she did her best to assure everyone that everything was under control and that they would be able to start moving again soon.

Somehow, it was hard to convince herself that everything was normal. None of the civilians seemed outraged or disgusted that she'd killed a man in front of them- a few of them nodded at her approvingly, and one woman even thanked her, the aunt escorting the group of teenagers who had shucked her veneer of respectability like a second skin when they left town. She seemed somehow diminished and paler without pins in her hair or slick red lipstain. Aiko nodded dully.

"It's nasty business," she rasped, fingers searching for one of the cigarettes she'd run out of days ago. "But you showed them, eh sweetheart?"

________________________________________

Aiko separated from her teacher at the village gates. He sent her home- they'd do the proper de-briefing sometime soon, after he'd had a chance to submit the mission report and it was filed with the mission desk.

She didn't go straight home. Aiko wandered the streets for a while, not really thinking until she realized she was outside the civilian petstore.

One slim hand with short fingers just losing their baby pudge patted the thin fold of bills she'd received as payment for her mission. She couldn't actually feel them through the fabric of her holster, but knowing they were there was enough. In relatively quick time, she found the most ridiculous, fluffy cat in the whole store- a confectionary affair of an animal with soft black fur, delicate paws, and unnerving green eyes. She probably looked absolutely strange walking down the street with dusty leggings, a bulging knapsack and an armful of protesting kitty, but she was feeling the need for a hug. She hadn't dared ask her teacher for one, she couldn't tell her baby brother she'd killed a man and she had no one else, so giving hugs was going to have to substitute getting them.

"Smaug," she said abruptly to a cat who didn't seem to care, doing his level best to escape with half the skin on her chest while she struggled with the doorknob of her apartment. "You're Smaug."

The dragon cat didn't care one way or another about his new name.

________________________________________

Naruto loved Smaug. Smaug didn't love Naruto. Smaug did his level best to assassinate both children until Naruto decided to win feline love with food. She let him feed the cat takeout ramen. Apparently Iruka had started taking him out to Ichiraku while she was gone. The babble washed over her like foamy sea water, a comforting undulation of white noise syllables without meaning. He'd beat Kiba in a spar. Sakura had snapped and challenged Ami to a spar and won, but got her very first detention. A girl had been dropped from the class. Sasuke was still a bastard. Mizuki-sensei was still a bastard. Neji was still a bastard but he hadn't been seen since graduation. He was going to be the Hokage one day.

Over the next few days, she patched together a new normal that started with three lunches instead of two- one for the spoiled cat, who had decided he would tolerate her as a live-in servant and followed her around town to her morning practice, getting dust on his coat. Every day she returned him to the apartment, picked up her lunch and opened his, met Kakashi for training, went home for a shower or went to the onsen to listen to the conversation of strangers, then went home for dinner or went out with Naruto and sometimes Ino and a couple of time Kiba joined the two of them, giving Aiko strange glances all the while.
After her second successful C-class mission, she didn't get D-class missions anymore. Technically she had a B-class on her record from tagging along when Kakashi caught that prospective missing nin, so she looked pretty good on paper.

To keep up with the fact that she'd be in more combat situations, her teacher drilled her mercilessly on taijutsu and forced her to perfect the water jutsu she knew, as well as some tactics for using them together. Once that was done, he taught her first real offensive water skill- something she likened to a spray of bullets. Depending on the speed and chakra she used, they could either punch holes in flesh or just knock someone over.

Her teacher had stared at her when she'd mastered it on the second try with something like nostalgia. He wasn't entirely surprised, however. It didn't require control or finesse so much as it did enthusiasm.

That she had in spades. Aiko had gotten her first real taste of shinobi life. If she was going to make anything better, she needed to work hard and fast.

Changing the course of a world (or at least a continent) wasn't work for amateurs.
________________________________________
Chapter Word Total: 5,326
Story Word Total: 45,560
That's the end of that- I'm considering the November writing challenge done. Aiko has come to the important conclusions she's been avoiding, so it's a good place to end.
I am, however, going to continue this. Any strong feeling about whether it should be as a separate story or as a next arc in the same story should be submitted via review- I have justifications for both options but would like to hear what others think, since I fly beta-less. I'm considering doing a time-skip of about a year to Naruto's graduation, in either case.

Chapter Text

Arc Two
________________________________________

"Aiko, Aiko! Oneesan!" Naruto waved the blue fabric above his head, pushing his way through the students milling around outside. He barreled directly into her with force that would have knocked over a lesser pre-teen. Some of his now-former classmates gave him strange looks. Students dropped out of the Academy all the time. Since she'd been out for two whole years, most of her former classmates had probably forgotten she ever attended.

Indulgently, Aiko hugged her otouto for all she was worth, trying to focus on him and not all the soggy-looking student glaring in his direction. Sometimes his hyperactivity made her tired, but since today was his day of triumph she was willing to let it slide. He'd earned his headband, although not in the way she'd half expected.

She'd spent a long time trying to make up her mind about letting his graduation go according to 'plan'. The thought of her brother failing and being tricked by Mizuki-bastard was really unappealing. The thought of letting him be hurt in that way made her heart ache, even if she knew it would strengthen his fledgling bond with Iruka-sensei.

In the end, she didn't have to make a decision. Her otouto had come to her with watery blue eyes and a request to help him practice his jutsu so he could graduate, and she bent over backwards to accommodate. She knew perfectly well what the problem was- he had too much chakra and too little control to use the tiny smidge of spiritual power required for a standard bunshin.

So he wasn't going to use a standard bunshin.

She hadn't used one since she graduated- they were stupid anyways. Unfortunately, Naruto's primary affinity was wind (she reminded him daily for weeks that he'd never be as cool as her after she 'found out' with chakra paper), but he seemed to have some small aptitude for water and the sheer determination to make it work. That tiny bit of talent and his enormous willpower resulted in beautiful water clones.

His ridiculous chakra reserves helped him flood the academy classroom with them. Literally, once they were all dispelled. As he laughingly explained to her over celebratory barbeque, he almost didn't pass because Mizuki was so furious he tried to have him failed for using non-standard bunshin under the premise that he wasn't obeying the letter of the rule.

"But Iruka-sensei sure told him! It was awesome, oneesan." Naruto fidgeted, practically ready to explode out of his seat and bounce off the walls. The bulky man who'd brought them their food eyed him warily.

Aiko gave the man a sharp glare, telling him to fuck off silently. She tilted her head slightly so his eyes were drawn to her headband- visibly marred like only a headband that had seen action could be.

He left.

"nd even if I hadn't had the bunshin at all, I still would have passed because I had that extra credit in projectiles! You were right, oneesan."

"Aren't I always?" She stole a piece of particularly attractive-looking beef off his plate and tried not to laugh at the way he squawked.

"Hey, don't be mean!"

"I'm paying aren't I," she said blandly. It was theoretically a treat- but really, she paid for almost everything. As of today, the small checks Naruto received as an orphan in ninja training would end, but she'd really been paying all the bills with what she earned running missions anyway. It wasn't a problem- despite the fact that she didn't run nearly as many missions as she had when she first became a Genin, C and B class missions paid exponentially better.

Judging by the three fat wallets she had hidden in the apartment, Kakashi was either secretly a millionaire or had some illicit and ungodly expensive habit, like maybe he was currently building a summer home entirely out of diamonds using unicorns and princesses as laborers- nothing else could explain why he was so damn cheap. The man made plenty of money.

Her sensei ran fewer missions without her these days. Once she had figured out that he hadn't been taken off the roster for high level missions, his frequent absences and the days he just didn't show up for training made a lot more sense. She hadn't been cleared for A-class missions, so he ran those with another team, but she was his shadow in everything else.

That had caused no small amount of amusement among the elite Jounin who seemed to know him by sight- the first time that she had toddled out of the village behind him in a matching mask, the couple sitting at the gate had burst out laughing.

"This is my mission face," she'd said blandly, as if that was an answer. It made sense to her- she was terrible at controlling her emotions and expressions. That wasn't appropriate when she was on the clock. In a way, putting on the mask made it easy for her to become another person. She had never explained that to her sensei.

He'd seemed unnerved the first time he saw her in a black cloth mask, but never commented.
"When do you get your team assignments?" she asked, already knowing.

His expression brightened, the slight against his dinner already forgotten. "First thing tomorrow, 'ttebayo! Hey, hey, do you think I should change my look?" He tugged at his blue t shirt. "This doesn't look very shinobi-ish. I'm a real ninja now, and I should look like one!"

"Fine by me," she agreed easily. Aiko liked playing dress-up. She hadn't changed her look significantly in the past year so much as she'd added identical outfits in different colors. Black, gray and blue were 'mission' colors, and she didn't wear them within the village anymore. It helped her both pack quickly and compartmentalize her life. Her headband had been put on black fabric, and she wore it around her waist almost every day. Today she was in red- a cheery cherry shade.

Her hair, on the other hand, had changed in the past year. That was more because she was bad at cutting it than that she was vain about having long hair. When she wore it in a pony tail, it was just barely long enough to brush the base of her neck. When she felt childish, it made for two adorable spiky pigtails jutting out on either side of her face.

She'd never understand how most ninja seemed to only ever own one outfit at any given point in time. It was gross and depressing.

They loaded Naruto up with several pairs of the standard-issue blue pants (apparently he didn't find them as depressing as she did). Aiko laughed for a while that he had to buy them in a women's small while he pouted and tugged out the incriminating tags. He located long-sleeved blue shirts that matched. Just when she was starting to think she had somehow warped him into an incredibly boring person, he gleefully snatched short sleeved shirts in orange, yellow, and green and then started pawing through hilariously oversized sunglasses. She put a stop to the last part, but couldn't bear to tell him he couldn't replace his orange goggles. They were adorable, frankly.

"Oh crap, I forgot to feed the dragon." Aiko stopped and gaped at her brother. So did the rather disturbed-looking old lady who had been glaring disdainfully at him when he said it, turning pale and hobbling away.

"How could you, Naruto? That's terrible! Poor kitty cat."

Said cat seemed to agree. He gave Naruto the long, slow look that usually meant he was going to try to smother Naruto in his sleep by laying on his face sometime in the night. In apology, Aiko filled up a short bowl with whipped cream from a can and sprinkled it with catnip. He was a little kinder when he was high. Some days, she wished Smaug was a nin-cat so she could teach him to breathe fire. Alas, he was just a particularly angry house cat.

________________________________________

"That's fucking ridiculous," Sarutobi Asuma complained through a mouthful of smoke. "That team is stacked." His female companion grabbed his cigarette right out of his mouth and dropped it, crushing it under her heel. He stared at her slack-jawed, feeling more than a little betrayed. The civilian secretary, on the other hand, outright shrieked. No one paid her any mind.

"What do you have to complain about?" Kurenai nudged him companionably, smiling a little at his expression. "You have a dream team, too. Ino-Shika-Cho? You really got a nice set-up and the top kunoichi of the year. You'll love it." Her expression softened into a full smile, red eyes sparkling. "Isn't it so exciting? Our first genin teams! I've been waiting for this since I became a Chuunin."

"Goody," Asuma muttered, not remotely excited about having a genin team. He'd been avoiding the duty for years. Jounin-level shinobi who were considered stable enough to train children were in pretty short supply (and the criteria for 'stable enough to teach' were frighteningly vague). The assignment wasn't as flattering as Kurenai seemed to think it was, even if they had been gifted with the crème de la crème.

No point in bursting her bubble, though. She'd wise up on her own- or maybe she really would like the duty as much as she hoped. He wished her the best, really he did. But Kakashi…

"I just don't get that bastard. He doesn't even like kids. I don't get why Hokage-sama (the last word was tinged with more than a bit of irony) is letting him have his cake and eat it too."

Kurenai shrugged philosophically. "Do you really want a team with the angriest little Uchiha" (an unofficial and rather unkind nomme de plume gifted by superiors) "and a jinchuuriki?"

"Not when you phrase it like that," he muttered. "But when you remember that the angry little Uchiha is the top student of the year and that this'll complete his set of Namikaze kids…"

Anko swooped out of absolutely nowhere with a creepy grin and the smell of scales (which seemed to be her main form of transport, followed closely by 'materializing out of the darkness' and 'already waiting in your closet when you go to look for linens') and punched his shoulder, hard. "Oh sorry, didn't see you there." The ridiculous lie clearly baffled both of the Jounin she'd interrupted, which the new special Jounin seemed to take as a compliment. She grinned fiercely, and poked his cheek with a dango stick. "Gotta watch what you say," she warned cheerily. "You're going to be spending a lot of time around ankle biters. It'd fuckin' suck if you polluted their precious little brains with things they shouldn't know, wouldn't it?"

Kurenai's brain nearly shut down at that bit of hypocrisy. "Anko-san, what are you doing here?" she asked wearily. The younger woman beamed.

"I get to fail my very first genin team! Glad I'm not one of you fuckers. I'd cry a river of blood if I were asked to train three midgets to show up our allies at Chuunin exams in three months."

A shiver went up Kurenai's spine. 'Hokage-sama was willing to risk letting Mitarashi-san have a genin team? That's just frightening. Maybe this assignment isn't such an honor after all.'

Eager to go, as soon as Iruka and Mizuki stepped out of the classroom and asked them to gather their short people one at a time, Kurenai gave a tiny squeal, straightened her spine, and walked in. A few minutes later she walked back out with three ankle-biters, one of whom was gazing up at her adoringly with big pale eyes.

Asuma sighed. "Time to face the music, I guess." He raised an eyebrow at Anko. "You want to go first?"

She waved him off. "Nah. I need a moment to get all the laughter out before I crush their hopes and dreams. Or worse, get stuck with a team of little shits." She shuddered.

"Suit yourself," he mumbled, wishing he had another cigarette or reason to put this off. With a sigh, he stuck his head in. "Team Ten? Follow me." He ambled down the hall, looking as if he'd rather be dead. A short scuffled erupted inside the classroom, and then the door banged all the way open. A blonde girl dressed in a ridiculous purple outfit strutted out, followed by an anxious Akimichi (you could always pick them out of a crowd) and with her nails digging so far into the wrist of the other boy behind her that he was outright hustling to keep up. Anko howled with laughter, not minding when the chit huffed and turned her nose up.

"Oh, that's cute." She propped the door open. "Team six? Get your skinny asses out to the playground, stat." Her voice dropped an entire octave into something shockingly sinister. "We're going to play a little game."

________________________________________

"I can't believe you did this to me," Naruto said flatly, staring straight up at the ceiling. Sasuke gave him a baffled look. "You knew, the whole time. I thought you loved me."

Sasuke inched away.

The strange girl who had showed up with their new sensei and claimed to be his side-kick snickered, fiddling with her copper ponytail. Sakura put a hand to her own long hair, smirking in a self-satisfied way. Sasuke tried not to think about what was going on in her head. That way only leads to madness. The stranger teased, "of course I love you. That's why I knew just how hilarious your face would be after Sensei made you wait a million years."

Uncharacteristically, Sasuke interjected, both relieved that his new teammate wasn't hitting on him and eager for information about the strange man who had made him wait. "Is that man always so late?" His face twisted in a grimace when she nodded.

"Come on, you guys." She made a shoo-ing motion. "Didn't you hear him say to meet on the roof?"

The blonde idiot rolled his eyes. "You're not there either, so don't nag."

"Aren't I?" she asked noncommittally. The girl gave a sharp little smile that didn't quite reach her eyes- and then Naruto cursed, moving backwards in slow motion, but not fast enough to escape the minor explosion as the girl dissolved into water.
Sasuke rolled his eyes at his now-soaking teammate and took off for the stairs. "Idiot." Left unsaid was that he hadn't noticed the girl was a water clone either. Sakura took a moment to squeal over just how cool he was before falling in behind him. "Hey, wait up you guys!" Naruto sneezed, trying to squeeze excess water out of his shirt.

Up on the rooftop, Aiko grabbed her teacher's wrist with her left to hold up his hand and gave it a high-five with her own. "Excellent work!" He docilely let her arrange his arm as she wanted, limp. Kakashi had recently discovered that one of the best ways to deal with children was to deny them a reaction. If he pretended to be dead or in a sudden coma, they got bored and went away (to call for help sometimes. That was always funny). It never worked for long on Aiko, but then again it was hard to escape an apprentice.

"I bet anything I can manipulate them into passing your test without saying thing about it," she challenged in a sing-song tone, snuggling into his side. He rolled an eye. 'That'd be a miracle.' It seemed like sacrilege that he was going to have to pass this team.

The other three brats toddled up the stairs, the pink-haired girl paying an inordinate amount of attention to the Uchiha's rear end. Kakashi sighed internally, already resigned to his fate. He only had to get these three up to Chuunin level in three months. No big, right?

The blonde one tripped over his own feet and blamed it on a butterfly. Suddenly, Kakashi felt very sorry for himself.
"Let's do introductions," he said in a purposefully bland voice. Do not engage more than necessary. No eye contact. "You first, pinky pie."

Sakura looked a little uncertain. "Just my name?"

"And any other relevant facts," Aiko chirped. "Things you like, dislike, hope to accomplish. Stuff like that." Her smile didn't reach her eyes.

The other girl gave her a grateful smile. It was a fake one as well. "Right! I'm Haruno Sakura. I like…" her eyes trailed over to Sasuke. He froze like a deer in front of a predator. She giggled, turning pink. "I like lots of things, and certain people! I don't like Ino or…" she trailed off, eying Aiko and apparently re-thinking whatever she'd been about to say. "ramen. My dream… well. I can't say."

Judging by the way she honed in on the poor brunette like a hungry wolf might a bleeding rabbit, Kakashi didn't think he needed her to say it aloud.

'This one is going to be a terror to teach. It might be kinder to pressure her into leaving the program and ask the Hokage for a replacement. She might actually tie him up in her closet so he can never leave her. Seems the type.'

While the sole adult was processing that and deciding to carefully avoid teaching her anything dangerous until she was less obviously unstable, Naruto gasped theatrically and started to babble something doubtlessly inane about ramen. Unamused, Kakashi pointed at him with his whole hand. "Go."

Naruto's eyes narrowed, but with a brief glance at his sister's amused expression, he resigned himself to it. "Fine. I'm Uzumaki Naruto! I love ramen, my precious people, and I'm going to be the Hokage one day, 'ttebayo!" He stuck his tongue out at Sasuke. "Now you, bastard."

Sasuke twitched, but smoothly introduced himself when prompted. "I don't have many interests or things that I like. I do have an ambition, however." How perfectly droll.

"What's that," Naruto asked, inappropriately invading his teammate's personal space. He probably learned it from his sister, who pulled that kind of thing all the time. The Uchiha batted him away. He'd learn how pointless that was soon enough, Kakashi was sure. They just didn't give up.

"To kill a certain man and restore my clan." He stared forward darkly. If he'd been less experienced, the Copy nin might have thought he didn't care about his peers' reaction. But he knew better, especially since the kid had brought it up unprompted. He was looking for a reaction to his declaration that he already wanted to kill someone. His bright little apprentice seemed to catch that as well, if her mischievous expression was anything to go by. So…

"Your dream is to be a dad?" Aiko asked, a curious smile tugging at her lips. "That's wonderful." Sasuke's eyebrows furrowed. Sakura giggled, a hand creeping up to her face.

"Moving on," Kakashi interrupted, wanting to get this over with. "Hatake Kakashi, your Jounin instructor. That is," he chuckled, "assuming you pass the test."

"We just passed the test!" Naruto informed. "No way!"

"That was just a test to weed out those who had no chance at becoming Genin. It's funny, you see. Only one third of prospective students that graduate actually get to be Genin."

Their horrified faces were adorable. He tried not to enjoy frightening small children more than he absolutely had to. "Meet me tomorrow at training ground se-"

"We didn't finish introductions," Sasuke pointed out, glaring a little at Aiko. "Who are you?"

There was an awkward silence.

"Um, Sasuke-san," she began, rubbing at her neck, "I was in your class for two years. I'm Naruto's older sister, remember? Uzumaki Aiko?"

"No. You must not have been interesting."

Naruto turned bright red. "Hey bastard, you can't just say-"

"As I was saying, meet at training ground seven at seven am for your test to see if any of you deserve to be genin," Kakashi interrupted crossly. "One last piece of advice? If I were you, I wouldn't eat breakfast. You'll probably just throw it all up." With that, he was gone.

"He's such a drama queen." Aiko stood up. "Come on kittens, let's go for lunch and get to know each other as a team. My treat." She reached out and snagged an arm from each boy, apparently trusting Sakura to follow. Naruto was resigned to being dragged around like an especially large doll, but Sasuke made the mistake of struggling. "It wasn't a request. We're going to be the best of friends, you and I," she said darkly.

From his perch a few buildings away, Kakashi observed his new team (and wasn't that a horrible thought, he'd only ever had one team and now he had a team again and not just co-workers or an apprentice, a team, a whole flock of short people depending on him for protection and learning). The Uchiha boy was attempting to slide out of Aiko's grasp. Kakashi couldn't see what she said, but whatever it was caused the boy to go limp for just a moment. That was all she needed. No matter how intense he was, Sasuke was just a little boy, a freshly minted genin. Aiko was technically a Chuunin, but she could probably give weaker Jounin runs for their money.

Her lack of promotion to Jounin had been a very intentional move, for multiple reasons. On Kakashi's part, it was because an apprentice was only really tied to their sensei as a lower level nin. Despite being emotionally constipated, he really did want to protect Sensei's children. The best way he knew to do that was to teach them to be strong enough to take care of themselves when he wasn't there- but be there anyways so they didn't have to be.

Luckily, he wasn't the only one invested in the apprenticeship. The Council had some bizarre idea that their top active nin was going to pass down all his specialties to her. Well. That was the traditional meaning of an apprenticeship, but that didn't mean he'd exactly given away the Hatake summoning contract yet. As long as he hadn't taught her his unique skill set or those of her parents that only their genetic relations could use (hello, previously lost whirlpool jutsu and one-man Hirashin) then there was no way they'd take the kid away from him.

The Council had their fingers in all sorts of pies these days, really.

The Copy-nin frowned, trying not to think about the bizarre pressure the Council was exerting on teams 7, 8, and 10 to push their rookies into the Chuunin exams being held in Konoha in three months. In one way, he understood. The teams had been stacked with the best of the best, and it would be an incredibly effective propaganda victory to completely dominate the exams while putting the children that the council had so many hopes for in as little danger as possible.

Most of this group- well, the next exams were in Iwa and then Cloud. Konoha was going to be sending exactly zero genin with bloodlines there, which would probably hurt their juggernaut standing as the most powerful village. If they were still riding on a high from the upcoming exams, however, that lack wouldn't be as obvious.

Kakashi stared glumly forward, trying to work up the will to read his beloved books. There was absolutely no way he'd be allowed to fail this team, not even the pink-haired tagalong. He was going to be stuck looking at a four-and-a-half foot tall (exaggeration, but the point still stood) mob of painful memories every day until they left, at which point he was going to have to worry about them. There was really no winning with this.

________________________________________

Sakura settled into the booth first, praying Sasuke-kun would sit next to her. The other girl –who was wearing her black forehead protector around her waist as if to emphasize how small it was, what a bitch- slid in instead, which was the second-best outcome. Sakura didn't want to have to sit next to that idiot Naruto, and she definitely didn't want the other girl getting up close to Sasuke-kun. She could hardly believe that was the girl who'd graduated two years ago. She looked like a real ninja in her plain green tunic, matching pants and knee high black boots. Even worse, she looked older than twelve. Sakura glumly adjusted her top discreetly, trying to look voluptuous. It wasn't working.

In the aisle in front of their booth, the two boys looked somewhere between constipated and combative, determinedly not staring each other down and not sitting down first.

"Sasuke, you'll want to sit first. Naruto has way too much energy to be trapped between a person and a wall. He'll make you get up a hundred times."

While Naruto sputtered and denied the accusation, the dark-haired boy gave up and sat down, sliding until he was pressed up against the wall. He looked as though he was being tortured, but Naruto did as well, sitting on the very edge. Sakura cleared her throat.

"So, ah… Why are you here, Aiko-san? Genin teams are made of cells of three, aren't they?"

"Correct," Aiko said blandly. "I'm a Chuunin. Do you know how apprenticeships work?" When no one volunteered information, she continued in a matter-of-fact way.

"You three are in a genin cell, but I never was. Instead, I apprenticed under Kakashi-sensei because he has a very specific skill set that the Hokage wanted him to pass on to me. That bond isn't severed until one of two things happen- both parties want it over, or the apprentice reaches Jounin levels. Neither has happened, since I still have more to learn from Kakashi-sensei. But then come along you three-" She gestured expansively. "Who for one reason or another, the council committee feels belong under Kakashi-sensei's mentorship. I'm not supposed to tell you this, but there's a rush order on you three. Hokage-sama wants you all either promoted to Chuunin or at least ready to make a bid for promotion in three months."

'If that doesn't get their skinny asses in gear, nothing will.' Aiko kept her face carefully impassive. She had an unfair advantage in manipulating these kids. She didn't feel guilty for using it.

The three genin's faces were a study in shock. They quickly transitioned to various expressions of pride or confusion, but no one said anything before the waitress plodded over unenthusiastically for their drink orders.

After the interruption, it was Sakura who brought up the old topic. "Isn't that really unusual? I thought people sometimes spent years as genin."

"We're just that awesome!" Naruto grinned wide enough that Aiko's cheeks hurt just looking at him. She solved the problem by flicking a senbon at him, letting it sink into the vinyl of the booth back a half inch from his ear.

"It's rude to shout at the table," she said mildly. "Konoha is hosting Chuunin exams in three months. They're kind of a big deal for the village in that they're a show of strength to prospective clients. The idea is that if we can crush the competition with rookie contestants, we'll be showing that our brand shiny new genin are better than their experienced ones. You three have been picked as a group that has exceptional potential as a team."

'Keyword being as a team. Pay attention, kiddies. Remember this for the test tomorrow.'

Sasuke seemed to flinch, carefully not looking at either of his 'teammates' and scowling.

"Anyway. Since I'm his apprentice, I think I'm getting screwed into doing his grunt work. With that in mind, you'll all three be doing my morning training. Ah, yes, thank you." She took the glass of apple juice the waitress had brought, swigging it down in an unladylike manner. Sakura tried not to grimace.

"Tell me about yourself, Sakura. Not the kind of things you said up there. Your strengths and weaknesses- in other words, what you can contribute to the team and what the team is going to do for you to make the group better." She eyed the boys. "You two think about your answers to the same question. Anyone who claims they have no weaknesses is going to get laughed all the fucking way to Suna."

'If they don't figure out to use teamwork tomorrow, I will personally beat them all up. I'm doing all the work for them.'
________________________________________

Omake:

"eam Seven will be Haruno, Sakura; Uchiha, Sasuke; and Uzumaki, Naruto. Your Jounin sensei…" pause. A whispered 'is that right? Huh. Poor bastards.' Then, "Hatake Kakashi."

"YES!" Naruto leapt out of his seat and directly onto the desk, flowing effortlessly into an impromptu dance. "This is great! Except that you're involved." He pointed directly at Sasuke, who looked more than a bit disgruntled. "You're terrible. In fact, are you certain I can't make a trade for like, Shino or something?"

"No trades," Iruka said dryly. "Sit down and shut up, Naruto. Moving on. Team Eight…"

Kiba scowled at Sasuke, who lowered his eyebrows imperceptibly in confusion. He didn't know why dog-face would be pissed at him. Had he wanted to get on a team with Naruto? It figured. Loud, mediocre idiots should probably stick together.

Akamaru whimpered sympathetically and licked his human friend's face. "Thanks buddy," he sighed. Hinata and Shino seemed alright (the latter both preening at being requested and incredibly grateful to have escaped being placed with Naruto). Kiba had been hoping for a different assignment, though. Forget trading Shino- he'd trade places with Sasuke in a minute. Naruto was kind of loud and annoying, but it would be worth it. His sister was freaking hot.

________________________________________
I tried to make it seem like Aiko was a genin on their team for as long as possible, just to mess with you. Consider this your warning: I can be a troll. Non-canon team is non-canon! Basically, I shot some things about team arrangement with my AU laser gun. Pew pew.

Chapter Text

'I hope they're enjoying their last day of freedom. What a waste of a morning.'

The girl frowned down at the three prospective genin slumping around in various poses of disinterest and inaction. She felt like a creeper and had to wonder- did Kakashi ever do this to her? It seemed like him, to watch from a distance to observe what she did when she thought she was unseen. She had been curious about how accurate her knowledge of the relationship between Sakura, Naruto and Sasuke was. After all, it was entirely possible that she had changed things by changing Naruto. It didn't look like it.

From her tree-top position under a mild genjutsu, Aiko couldn't hear what little conversation was going on between the three genin, but she probably didn't need to.

Somewhat surprisingly, Naruto had arrived first. Her otouto had paced for a while, jogging around the training field to make sure that he really was the only one there before settling down into the grass about fifteen feet from the lacquered wooden bridge over the small stream that bisected their training ground. He must wake earlier than she'd thought, or maybe it was first day jitters that had him out of bed at six forty. It was cute how he actually knew Kakashi was chronically late, but still thought there was a possibility that he would show up on time for their test.

Sasuke was next to show up, only about two minutes later. Even from her perch Aiko could see that he went a little bug-eyed at seeing Naruto had beat him there. The brunette sullenly (or was it meant to be impassively?) leant against the side of the red bridge to wait.

Her otouto still didn't have much of an attention span- after the clear disappointment of seeing Sasuke instead of Sakura he was looking longingly off into the trees, but clearly restrained himself.

That girl he always wanted to impress pranced in on a veritable cloud of batted eyelashes and floating perfume five minutes before the time Kakashi had given them. Aiko tried not to sigh, rubbing her face with one hand while her silly otouto went ga-ga, guilelessly complimenting her dress (why hadn't anyone ever told her it was unsuitable?). The pink-haired girl paid him no mind, honing in on Sasuke in a way that definitely wasn't subtle. The poor boy cringed when she inched closer and closer.
Sakura probably wasn't a bad kid, aside from the obsessive parts of her personality and her quick temper. She was just so… so… well, so civilian that it hurt a little to look at her. Aiko had worked hard to distance herself from that lifestyle and perspective, so seeing a fellow kunoichi who hadn't yet caught on made it difficult to bite her tongue. That didn't even account for the fact that she heard from Naruto about every inane thing the froofy little chit did ad nauseaum.

Sasuke seemed sort of sensibly on guard around her. That was a good judgment on his behalf- despite her painfully innocuous presentation, there was something distinctly predatory about the girl. The core of an effective (if crazy) kunoichi was there.
That potential was probably more worrying than encouraging for her brunette teammate. She had designs on his flesh.
On time, Aiko flickered to the center of their little group, posing stretched-out on the ground so that when they noticed she was there, they would question just how long she had been behind them. Sasuke was the first to notice her. "Good morning, kittens," she said calmly. "Sleep well?"

Sakura was the only one who engaged in polite banter, eying her up in a distinctly unfriendly manner. 'This girl isn't nearly as subtle as she thinks she is.'

She gave a long stretch, feeling the muscles in her back and shoulders pull pleasantly, and yawned before flipping to her feet. "On your feet, Naruto. I'm not going to be sticking around for your test because I've got places to be, so let's make this quick. We're doing stretches. Sakura, tell me why."

"To prevent muscle injury later during a workout," the girl said briskly, glancing away from her precious love interest/victim for a moment to make eye contact. Aiko pretended she didn't hear the girl's stomach rumble. It was in good company- apparently none of them had eaten. They'd soon learn not to trust stupid orders. That was Kakashi's lesson to teach, however, not hers. She'd settle for starting their physical conditioning.

"Good. We're doing something called a sun salutation. Right now it's just a series of stretches, but eventually it'll be a meditation tool for you three. Sasuke, why is meditation a ninja skill?"

The three pre-teens copied her movements easily, sinking into the grass. "To increase available chakra by using spiritual energy," he replied, monotone and dignified despite being ass-up. Kid took himself too seriously. Sakura was torn between sucking her stomach in and staring, wide-eyed at the view. Aiko slid into downward-facing-dog and the three followed her. At least Naruto seemed solely focused on the salutation.

By the time Kakashi deigned to show up, she had the kids doing rounds of sit ups and push-ups. Sakura was red-faced and trembling, clearly on the verge of collapse. Sasuke was doing the best and still going strong. He was physically the strongest, it seemed. He had probably earned that top ranking. Even with his foxy advantage, Naruto got tired but easily recuperated one muscle group while he had switched to the other.

In the back of her mind, she was already making plans as to how to direct their training- she knew Kakashi well enough to be sure that he would think his 'hands-off' method would suffice, which left it up to her. It was in her benefit as well- now that he had a full-time team, Kakashi had pretty much been grounded from his real missions. That left her either stuck in the village for training or on loan to other Chuunin teams. That prospect didn't exactly make her shiver with delight.

Once the kittens were strong enough to take out, she'd get to do better missions again. Even fresh genin could be relatively safe on C missions with a Jounin and a Chuunin.

"Today you will be doing survival training," Kakashi announced with a grim theatricality. That man got far too much joy out of tormenting children. He set three store-bought bento on the ground. "I hope you're not hungry, because anyone who does poorly at today's training won't be getting lunch."

Aiko tried not to ruin the atmosphere by laughing at their faces. They could probably still hear her through the hand over her mouth, but they seemed momentarily broken by just how much of a dick their sensei was. 'Welcome to my world.' She really loved Kakashi-sensei. He was just such an awkward, abrasive weirdo.

"This is your goal."

He held up two bells. Aiko eyed them with interest- this was the first time he'd pulled out the famous bells around her, and she hadn't had reason to 'know' of them before. He'd told her he would be testing them to see if they could work as a team, but no more details than that. She wasn't going to be doing all that much training with them- they weren't really on the same level, and she was more of a more experienced peer than a mentor.

"Your objective is to get these from me within one hour." He pulled an alarm clock out of nowhere and set it down on railing of the bridge. "Use any means necessary to get them. You have no chance to defeat me unless you come at me with intent to kill."
The bridge was totally silent except for the whisper of wind through the grass.

"But sensei!" Sakura protested. "There's only two bells!"

The two boys started, as if they hadn't noticed before she brought it to their attention. Kakashi chuckled in a way that Aiko knew was fake as all hell.

"That's right. I suppose that means one of you isn't going to pass, doesn't it?"

The three genin eyed each other, as if weighing up and dismissing each other. Sakura looked both inordinately self-satisfied beyond what her abilities merited and eager to get next to Sasuke. Naruto looked directly at the pink-haired girl with longing. Sasuke looked confident but anxious to get away from his peers, possibly by taking two bells.

"Begin now."

All three genin leapt away into the underbrush. "You're a mean man," she muttered quietly, trying not to smile. Her teacher shrugged, one hand slowly drifting towards his hip pouch. She hurried away, not wanting to interfere. They had to be able to do this on their own and she didn't want to be tempted to help.

________________________________________

Her bet that training ground ten would still be unoccupied at 10:40 am was a good one. 'Lazy bastards,' she snickered. Despite the fact that it was assigned to team ten, there was no reason she couldn't use it when they weren't around. 'Poor Ino… Her team assignment is pretty shitty.' Aiko walked onto the wide, flat river that was the reason she preferred this area and took a moment to warm up again by running through katas on the water surface.

Team ten had been assembled on the basis of 'nepotism' and the fanciful imagining that children were basically smaller copies of their parents. It was frightfully unfair to all three kids. Chouji and Shikamaru were relatively compatible personalities, (though not necessarily in the way teammates should be in order to push each other) but Ino wanted so much more than either of them did. Despite her vain affectations and flippancy, she really was a serious little kunoichi. Her peers were ninja because their parents wanted them to be, not because of any drive.

Who cared that their family jutsu worked well together?

That kind of unimaginative thinking was more limiting than anything. Family jutsu were great and all, but making that the cornerstone of a ninja's arsenal was absolutely idiotic. A ninja's greatest advantage came through being unexpected, whether that be through literal stealth or through being unpredictable. When you had an entire clan of blonde people who used the same two jutsu and pretty much only those two jutsu… It was stupidly easy for one strategy to be used against multiple Yamanaka or Akimichi or whatever.

'I'll never understand people.'

Of course, they were trying to do something similar with her. The Hokage must look at her and see a pale version of the Bloody Habanera- with her reddish hair, relatively weak chakra chains, hand-me-down sealing knowledge passed down through Kakashi, and a water affinity, she had all the components to be a half-assed version of her mother.

'Goody', she grumbled. That wasn't exactly her life plan, but that didn't mean she was refusing to pick up what Kakashi wanted to pass on of Kushina's jutsu (he'd never said that was the case, of course. Officially, she had no idea who her parents were. That was fine by Aiko. She didn't know that she could pretend to think of Minato and Kushina as her parents- they were Naruto's parents, but she had never been their baby).

Sometimes all Kakashi had to pass on was a mess of vague descriptions and unhelpful hand movements- he couldn't perform many of Kushina's techniques, so he was really helping her re-invent them more than he was teaching them.

She had been working on chakra chains for months, and it was starting to seem like she was just not cut out for the large-scale stuff Kushina had been able to do. She could restrain a few human opponents, but Kushina had restrained the rampaging Nine-Tails on her death bed. Aiko was under no illusions that she had that kind of talent.

She did pretty well with much thinner constructions, however. They were more like chakra ribbons than anything. She used them to clean the apartment without getting off the couch.

At least she had something seriously bad ass going on with her water affinity. She'd mastered all the jutsu Kakashi could give her- but boring, predictable jutsu weren't the hallmark of water mastery. Water was flexible and adaptive- by infusing it with her chakra and enforcing her will upon it she could make it do almost anything. It was more like an extension of her body than a weapon- like what the chakra chains had been for Kushina.

Best of all… She was pretty sure she now understood the logic behind Kushina's ancestors declaring themselves the Whirlpool.
Mastery of water was like being a pagan god, a chaotic mass of incomprehensible fury that answered to nothing.

With arm movements that weren't strictly necessary but helped her concentration, Aiko was suddenly at the center of a pillar of water cycling furiously and sucking up everything from the waterbed. She gritted her teeth and pushed, forcing it higher and wider, surrounding herself with a maelstrom that would be impenetrable by any conventional means. The strain on her reserves was negligible by now once she had it moving, momentum and her position as the centripetal force made maintaining speed child's play.

On a river, she was a minor god. The Uzumaki of old in the land of Whirlpool must have been terrifying in their watery homes. Unfortunately, there was a good reason they'd lived there and not in Konoha.

Both arms swung down and spread out, forcing the tornado of water to widen at the bottom and explode, the water at the top funneling out to follow the path of the escaping fluid at the bottom and shoot in a straight line that cut all the way through the short brush and a few inches into the trees along the river bank. She let it go, slipping to the ground in a minor flood that flowed and dripped back into the river basin.

She could only use this kind of water play when she had a large amount of water available. That meant that if she couldn't fight on or near the water, she had to create it herself through conventional water jutsu, which burnt through her reserves painfully quickly.

The pre-teen sighed, using shunshin to perch on a low-hanging tree branch to avoid getting muddy. (For a Leaf nin, standing on a Hashirama tree was about as natural as using the ground).

"Time for the boring stuff." Her teacher had demonstrated the first non-water elemental technique he wanted her to learn just last week. It wasn't going well, in no small part because lightning wasn't even her secondary affinity. That was probably air. In any case, changing her elemental alignment to even use pure lightning chakra took far too long for it to be useful in a fight.
The first time, it had taken her nearly half an hour to figure it out. After that she improved exponentially, but the six minutes she now clocked before she could spit lightning was still far too long. Her teacher could whip out an attack in less than a second. As a Chuunin, she would have been delighted with a five second time to switch her alignment after using water, but ten seconds was the absolute maximum she was going to accept from herself.

The only thing to do…. Was to practice. Again and again. Spit water. Change the direction and qualities of chakra flow in her coils. Spit lightning. Check time- five minutes forty two seconds. Release the chakra so it instantly swirled back to its natural alignment. Use water bullets. Change elemental affinity. Spit lightning. Check time- five minutes thirty eight seconds.

She could fight boredom by varying water attacks, but she only had the one minor lightning jutsu, which didn't help matters.
After an hour of work she finally broke past the barrier she'd been struggling with and managed to clock under five minutes. Her reserves were half gone, which meant she had to keep working, despite meeting her goal for the day.

It was an incredibly dull and chakra-intensive process. The only good thing about it was that she could stop for the day when she had her coils down to about ten percent- the most she could lose without risking serious injury. The routine had nearly doubled her chakra capacity, so she knew she shouldn't complain. It was just mind-numbing, and her fingers tingled with static electricity for hours after she stopped each day.

"They passed."

Aiko shrieked and jerked backwards, losing her balance in surprise and falling. In her panic, she barely managed to right herself and land on her feet. "Someone needs to put a bell on you, you sneaky bastard." she grumbled. Pointedly, he jingled the two that were hanging from his hip pouch. "Doesn't count, they don't make any sound. I meant a bell you can't silence."

 

His expression indicated that there was no bell he couldn't silence.

"So they figured it out, or they actually got the bells?" Aiko changed the subject. He gave her a supremely condescending look. The girl flushed, feeling the heat creep over her cheeks. It was a dumb question. Still... "Hey, it could happen," she defended. "Weirder things have in the history of the Elemental Nations."

He leapt away, apparently changing his mind about talking to her. She tried to follow, but he lost her on the rooftops with a series of shunshin. Aiko gave a heavy sigh. "Jackass." She checked the time against the position of the sun. "At least I know someone who will tell me all about it."

________________________________________

Naruto fidgeted in his usual seat outside the Hokage's office (it was bolted to the ground and it had his name on it and everything, though it was usually intended for when he was waiting to be yelled at after a prank so that he didn't creatively interpret the order to wait for the Hokage), confused and mildly vexed by being summoned there suddenly. He had planned on visiting the next day anyway, so the old man really should have just waited after Naruto found Iruka-sensei to tell him about how his first day as a ninja had gone.

His perpetually sunny attitude wasn't really flagging, despite the inconvenience. At least he'd have a chance to tell the old man about how awesome he was and that he was a real ninja now!

He'd totally shown up that bastard Sasuke during the bell test. Sure, he had his fancy fire vomit and shuriken attached to wires and-

Naruto cut off that train of thought before he started to feel sad that he couldn't vomit fire. Maybe he'd get the bastard to teach him! It would be the least the bastard could do for him, after Naruto was the one who got them through the test by coming to the brilliant conclusion that the gray-haired bastard had been trying to trick them because he couldn't handle all three of them working together. Kakashi-sensei had even said he was surprised and proud of Naruto for figuring it out and convincing the other two to work together, even though their plan had failed horribly- and he was totally going to look up 'savant' when he got home so he knew what exactly he'd been praised for.

Whatever it was, even Sasuke-bastard had reluctantly agreed, even though he turned his face away and made a funny sound that was almost like a snicker so that Naruto couldn't see how much the admission pained him. Sakura-chan had looked a bit uncertain, but he'd convince her.

The blonde beamed, completely unaware that the Chuunin behind the mission desk was keeping a very close eye on him and scowling. When the door opened and Sarutobi Asuma walked out, cigarette attached to his mouth as firmly as the frown was, the Jounin certainly noticed.

He scowled at the younger man, who jumped a little and looked away. The kid was a bit hyper and undeniably naughty, but that was no excuse to treat him like a criminal. Asuma knew something about the weight of expectation and how much it sucked to be in the public eye, so he felt a little sympathy for the brat.

Plus… the kid was stuck with Hatake. If that wasn't reason to pity him, there was nothing in the world deserving of sympathy. He'd probably end up brainwashed into another masked, passive-aggressive weirdo, like his poor sister who trailed after Hatake like a puppy.

He'd actually checked for a genjutsu the first time he saw the little chit in a mask. His next thought was that it had been some bizarre challenge with Gai, who had recently acquired a little green copy. It appeared to be neither- just fervent admiration from a silly Chuunin for her teacher. If she were a little older, he might have worried. But despite his racy reading tastes, Hatake appeared to be on the straight and narrow. Asuma was glad to see his eccentric comrade seemed to be a genuinely good guy, even if he was cripplingly weird. There had been no small amount of whispered speculation when Hatake had started to walk around town with porn in one hand and a ten-year old girl cheerily hanging off the other arm.

Naruto rushed in past the tall man oblivious to both the interaction with the hostile Chuunin and the sympathy directed at him, bounding to his usual chair in one leap. "Hey, old man! You'll never guess what happened today!"

Despite the unpleasant conversation he'd just had and the unpleasant one he was about to have, Sarutobi Hiruzen couldn't help but smile. "What happened, Naruto-kun?"

He stood, shuffling over to his bookshelf for the information he had prepared for this day. He'd nearly put this meeting off in the excitement of the day- some idiot Chuunin had decided it was the optimal time to turn traitor and break into the archives. He'd have to find a replacement Academy teacher sometime before eight am tomorrow- that man was currently a bit broken in the interrogations center, delusionally claiming that Orochimaru had wanted a scroll. It was just baffling that he'd thought he could get past the ANBU, much less the Hokage himself. But Sarutobi had known that if he put this revelation off past the day he'd promised himself he'd tell Naruto, he would be likely to convince himself Naruto didn't need to know yet.

"My sensei had us do another test to prove we were real ninja like the ones on the stone and I was the one who figured it out because Aiko had said something yesterday that made me think- oh yeah, Aiko is kind of on my team! Isn't that awesome?"
The Sandaime opened his mouth to reply, but didn't get the words out fast enough.

"And Sakura-chan is on my team too! It's going to be great, I bet she'll like me now that we're real ninja! I wish the bastard wasn't on my team, though, can we do a trade? Or even just have the team be Sakura and me and Aiko, well Kakashi-sensei too I guess. He's so weird but he said I did good! Hey, old man, is he always late? And one more thing- is he as old as he looks because I think he might be on his last leg and any day now he's going to keel o-"

"Naruto-kun, you make an old man feel tired." Hiruzen slumped back into his chair, smiling gently. "I am glad to hear that you did well on your test and that you like your teammates. I'm sure you will grow to like Sasuke-kun and Kakashi-kun as well, given time to get to know them."
"So… That's a no to trading Sasuke away, then?"

"You're a smart boy, Naruto-kun." The Sandaime ran a wrinkled hand over the book he had retrieved. "I have something I need to talk to you about. Something very important. Now that you're a ninja, you need to know the truth."

________________________________________

The door slammed, uncharacteristically loud. Aiko frowned, looking up from where she'd been checking on cookies and shut the oven. Baking was probably a silly hobby for a ninja, but at least it was easier to hide than binge-drinking or sex addiction. "Naruto?" She pulled off her cupcake shaped mitts (a project she had made badly years ago in a sewing class) and set them on the counter. "Is everything alright?"

Her brother didn't say anything. The bedroom door shut a moment later, and a 'whumph' announced that he had just flopped onto his futon. She frowned, perplexed. That last time she'd seen him, he'd still been riding on the high of his victory. To hear him tell it, he'd singlehandedly figured out the purpose of the bell test and united his teammates against the evil geriatric Cyclops who'd poked his butt. His enthusiasm had only been slightly dampened by the fact that he couldn't find Iruka anywhere to share the news.

When the summons had come and Naruto took off to tell the Hokage about it, he'd been visibly excited at the prospect of retelling his story. Despite the fact that Aiko didn't hide her lack of enthusiasm for him (she was still sure he was an emotionally manipulative old bigot), Naruto quite liked the Hokage. What could have happened that would put him in an uncharacteristically bad mood?

She drifted out to the living room, picking up trash and bringing dirty tea cups to the sink. The books she had on loan from the library were spread over the floor, so she piled them on the table. The twins weren't the best of housekeepers, to be honest.
An unpleasant thought occurred. She'd stopped Mizuki from telling Naruto that he was a jinchuuriki… When had the Konoha council or whoever been planning to tell him? They couldn't very well send him out into the field not knowing, could they? It was already pretty absurd that they had let him get to the age of twelve without knowing that he held such a terrible burden.
How would Naruto take that knowledge? The way he was meant to find out had been especially traumatizing, but he'd gotten over it pretty quickly in the manga… Or had he? She had a hard time remembering details, but he might have repressed the emotional reaction and had a lowered self esteem. Then again, he was a different person then. She had changed him just by being here… and that might have affected the way he would cope with stressful knowledge.

Slowly, Aiko walked to the bedroom, pushing the door open slightly. "Naruto?"

He was on his side with his back to the door, face buried in a pillow. She sat beside him, gently running a hand across his shoulders. "Want to talk about it?"

Naruto gave a low keening whine, turning his face slightly so she could see his eyes were puffy and red. "Oh, otouto." She gathered him into a hug. "Tell me what's wrong?" She had to lean in close to hear his response, but what she heard made her frown. "Bullshit. You're not a monster. You're a twelve year old boy with more determination and heart than anyone else I know."
"You don't understand," he said dully, sitting up. "The Hokage explained why everyone hates me. I'm the Kyuubi."

"The villagers that hate you do so because they are petty, stupid, and short-sighted, not because of you. Besides, I think I'd notice if my brother were a three story tall manifestation of pure chakra," she said dryly, wishing she could just tell him she knew and didn't care to get it over with. But she needed him to say it. She had no plausible reason to know.

"We were born on the day it attacked Konoha." She nodded. She knew that full well. Naruto swallowed hard. "And the Yondaime didn't kill it. It couldn't be killed. Instead he sealed it. Into me."

She bit her lip for just a second. Naruto searched her face, clearly desperate for her reaction.

"That means it's in you, not that it's you. I don't care, and neither does anyone who matters. The Hokage clearly doesn't think there's anything wrong with you, does he?" At Naruto's expression, she continued, "If the civilian villagers know, so do all the older nin. Iruka likes you a lot. He knows you're not the Nine-tails. So does Sensei. Doesn't what they think matter? They're both a lot smarter and better informed than the grumpy old civilian man who sells cabbages and gives us the stink-eye every time we walk past. What the fuck would he know about ninja business?"

"I… I guess. You really don't care?" The real twelve-year old sat up, rubbing at an eye fiercely with the back of a hand. She gently stopped him, and made sure she was looking directly into his face and tried to put as much sincerity as possible into her face and voice.

"I don't care if you have a dozen demons sealed in you. You're as human as it gets, and anyone would sense would realize that keeping the Kyuubi locked up inside you makes you a hero."

He sniffled pathetically, trying to look aloof. "That's convenient. A theory about the world that makes you the only one with sense."
"That sounds about right," she said blankly, falling into their usual banter.

They cuddled in silence, just soaking in being together. Naruto gently tapped her shoulder. "Hey, Aiko." At her inquisitive look, he continued. "Were you making cookies when I came in?"

She sighed. "I'll get them." Her brother followed her to the kitchen trailing blankets. "Want to see if there's a good movie on?" she called. Naruto shrugged.

"Okay." The television flickered on, and the jumble of voices and sounds that followed indicated that he was flipping through channels. "Want to watch a sappy romance flick?" he called hopefully.

Aiko shuddered, making a face. "Agh, you're killing me." She sighed. "Only because I love you," she muttered bitterly. Her brother must have heard, because he set the tv on a channel she definitely never watched on her own. Naruto was just so very full of feelings. She slid the gooey, hot cookies off the baking sheet and onto a cooling rack, putting four of them directly on a porcelain plate. Aiko then put her advanced ninja skills to good use balancing two glasses of milk and the hot cookies on her way into the living room. She stopped in her tracks as soon as she crossed the threshold. "Wow," she said dumbly. "You've gotten really fast about making pillow forts."

Her brother gave her an exaggerated, goofy smirk he had to have learned from Sasuke. It was adorable. His nose went up in the air and he snootily explained that "You can't watch a movie without a pillow fort."

She sat down next to him. "I thought that was just monster movies, and an excuse for you to snuggle when you got scared," she taunted.

Her brother flushed bright red. "Don't- don't say such ridiculous things! I'm a ninja. Ninja aren't scared of monster movies. No matter how big the lizards are."

"At least one ninja is," she sing-songed before she had to roll away to escape his hands when he lunged at her.
"Mean oneesan! Take that back!"

________________________________________
Omake: From the Time Skip (age 11-12)

"What's this?" One turquoise eye squinted at the vial in her slim fingers, tilting it slightly.
"Maybe if you shake it just a little more you'll find out." Aiko shot a glare at her sensei.

"Smartass."

"It's poison, Aiko-chan. You are looking at a soluble paralytic agent that you're going to be building up immunity to so you can infuse your adorable portable raincloud with it. Don't say I never did anything for you."

Aiko stared. 'That's sweet, I guess.' She took a deep breath, wrapping her hand more delicately around the glass vial. "So… Do I just drink it?"

"You could, if you want to die of an over dose. Have you ever seen someone paralyzed have a seizure? It's interesting. That vial right there is about the right amount to be spread out in your usual sized raincloud about twenty times."

She jerked the bottle a little further away from her face.

Chapter Text

"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura squealed, twisting her hands together cutely. 'He's so strong and cool!' She blushed when her teacher slowly glanced at her and pretended to be very focused on getting an even coat of white paint down even though her shoulders were starting to ache from the work.

Across the yard, his eye twitched and Sasuke pretended not to hear his painfully pink and red peer, hefting another load of the wood he was carrying for a fence that had been destroyed by some academy students. Just looking at …that person… was difficult. He couldn't catch her in the corner of his eye without thinking that Valentine's Day had found something too sickeningly sweet and thrown it up. 'This mission is probably Naruto's fault,' he glowered, trying to ignite the other boy with the force of his irritation. No one else ever made as much trouble as Naruto did- he was a bad influence on the younger kids.
This mission was their third D-class, and it was even less satisfying than the others because the client was the village itself- Sasuke didn't mind hard work. He did it all the time in the uphill struggle against the decay of the nearly abandoned Uchiha complex. Work that served a purpose or helped someone was a logical and acceptable contribution to the good of the village. But work caused by fellow nin (or nin in training) was stupid. They shouldn't be creating busy work and wasting other people's time. He could be training instead and getting stronger, now that he actually had someone willing to help with skills beyond the stupid Academy standards.

With a clatter, the boards fell to the dirt in a pile behind where Naruto was hammering away. "Thanks, bastard," he said distractedly.

'He's actually good at that,' the brunette allowed grudgingly. Aloud, he just grunted and turned away. There was something galling about being relegated to hauling heavy things like an animal while his teammate did the skilled labor, but he soothed his ego by remembering that woodworking was hardly a ninja skill anyways and it didn't matter.

His male teammate's surprising usefulness was balanced out by how much Sakura was a complete waste of space. He carefully didn't look at her- giving her attention only seemed to feed her frightening delusions about him. Even now, she was working harder to keep her nails clean than she was at painting what the boys had finished fixing.

The older two teammates were no help. Kakashi was currently leaning against a tree in the yard reading with one hand in his pocket. He looked as though he might be asleep on his feet. Privately, Sasuke despaired that this was his teacher. Aiko, on the other hand, had mumbled something quickly about having paid her D-class dues and vanished. He couldn't entirely blame her, either.

The redhead rejoined the group as they walked back to the tower to report that they had finished the two D-ranks for that day. Naruto eyed her grumpily. "Where were you all day?"

She rolled her eyes. "Naruto, I'm a Chuunin grounded in-village until my team is fit for fieldwork," she reminded in an exasperated tone. "I'm on the gate duty roster now." Aiko made a face and affected a high, simpering voice. "Why hello there, are you lost little girl? Could I speak to someone about approving my papers?"

Sasuke very carefully did not react while the blond buffoon pointed and laughed and Sakura gave a huff of rather smug amusement. He would have been angry beyond belief if someone had condescended to him like that. Kakashi seemed to radiate cheer, however and casually ruffled her hair. "Aa, that's what you get for moving up in the ranks early."

She smacked at his hand, missing completely. The older man was already fifteen feet away from the group, looking back at them. "Come come, do you want to keep the Hokage waiting?"

That bit of hypocrisy made the three genin see red. Aiko was used to it.

________________________________________
In a separate line from her team, Aiko handed over her yellow bordered scroll with a smile and a bow. Maybe if she was lucky, she wouldn't spend two weeks in a row on the Chuunin gate roster. It was only a thirty hour time commitment per week to give nin plenty of time to train, but it was still annoying. The room was a comforting bustle of polite conversation, rustling papers and the gentle trickling sounds coming from the tiny fountain separating the nin and civilian sides of the room.
"Old man, I'm tired of these crappy missions!" Naruto burst.

All other noise but the fountain stopped. She slowly turned her head, hoping against hope that she'd been mistaken and that loud voice had been someone else. 'No such luck.'

The rest of the room was a tableau of unsurprised but displeased expressions. Kakashi slowly put one hand to his forehead. "Thank you, Naruto, for screaming at the Hokage when he walked past the missions room. Thank you so very much," he mumbled lowly. Though he'd pitched it quietly, the blonde should have heard. Aiko did from ten feet away, after all.
The Hokage just looked amused. "Well, Naruto, you're a genin," he began.

"I don't care what my stupid rank is, we're ninja! We should have better missions than weeding and babysitting. And don't try to tell me those are essential skills for infiltration or adulthood. That's a lie. They're just busywork to shut up fat, lazy civilians who don't want to do their own chores."
The thick-set man in silk at the front of the line filing mission requests turned an interesting shade of purple.

Sakura had gone from an embarrassed pink flush to hiding her face in her hands and eventually ended up bright red and shaking with rage. "Naruto," she growled warningly. The damage was done, however. Some of the curious civilians gave her a look. Sasuke, on the other hand, had used the substitution jutsu on a potted plant so that no one realized he came in with Naruto. Aiko spotted him leaning against a wall and pretending to be deaf on the other side of the room.

"Kakashi-kun, do you think your team is ready for a C-rank mission?" The Hokage turned to the Jounin to make his point.
The man shrugged. "Do you have one an idiot can do? Between the three of them…" Aiko was just glad she wasn't included in that count. The leaves of the Sasuke-plant standing next to Naruto gently swayed, as if in agreement.

"Quite right," the Sandaime muttered, raising one eyebrow at the way Naruto was straining to attack his teacher and being prevented by the hand on his head holding him at arm's length. "All right. I think I have a C-rank mission you should be able to do. Come back tomorrow morning to meet your client, be prepared for a long escort mission. Would you send the client from Wave Country a message? I believe I had originally decided that mission would be given to Gai's squad when they get back in a few days, but no matter." He puffed on his pipe while the secretary he'd addressed made a note. "Now, if you'll excuse me…"

Sakura grabbed Naruto's arm with what was obviously painful force and dragged him bodily out of the building, where she proceeded to tear him a new asshole for embarrassing his team like that in front of the village leader and a room of their superiors and prospective clients. Aiko sighed, not feeling up to interfering. She'd hoped to avoid this mission. Granted, she didn't actually know that the client was Tazuna, but how many missions to Wave country would there be at any given point in time?
________________________________________

'Just one, apparently', Aiko noted tiredly the next morning. It wasn't luck so much as paranoia that had caused her to pack especially well for this mission, but she took a moment to be thankful nonetheless.

Knowing as she did that this mission would be long- months longer than it was billed as- she'd brought more than usual, and had splurged on two of those fucking expensive storage scrolls for extra weapons and high-calorie prepackaged food (it wasn't a good idea to mix comestibles with anything else). The rest of the space in her pack was filled with four changes of clothes (an indulgence her teacher would laugh at if he saw it at the gate, but he'd be jealous later when he was wearing the same nasty pants for a month), the waxes and oils to care for her weapons, boots and gloves, and the notebook she was currently working on filling. Her notebooks were messy indulgences, filled with half-remembered stories in English, a diary, and doodles of people in pretty clothes.

"I can't believe this is the ninja I hired," the old man mumbled rebelliously. "I paid good money. The short one looks like a total idiot." The two gate guards didn't say anything, but one of them rolled his eyes and stamped the foreigner's papers with an efficiency that got the group moving as quickly as possible. Naruto, on the other hand, turned an ugly red and clenched his fists. He was a second away from opening his mouth when his sister spoke up.

Aiko gave their client an impassive stare, tilting her head slightly to catch his eye. "Looks can be deceptive. For example, if I didn't know any better I'd say you were an unemployed drunk." Sasuke gave one of those funny restrained twitches that seemed to mean he was surprised (or amused, or hell, for all she knew it meant that he was hungry. He was a hard kid to read sometimes).

"Now now, children." Kakashi clamped one hand firmly down on Naruto's shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. "Behave. And don't worry, Tazuna-san. They may be a genin team, but the redhead there is a Chuunin, and I am an elite Jounin of this village. You are in good hands."
Tazuna eyed the group dubiously, but let the matter drop.

Now that she was the one observing genin chomping at the bit to go faster than a civilian's pace on their first trip outside, Aiko had to fight the urge to smile. No wonder Kakashi treated them like a pile of naughty puppies. They had calmed down a bit into a routine characterized by occasional bursts of violence or excitement about seeing a plant or animal that they had learned about in lessons but never seen in real life by the third day when Aiko noticed the glint of sunlight off a puddle in the center of the road.

She winced and exchanged a look with Kakashi. His amused expression indicated that yes, she really did look that ridiculous when she practiced hiding-in-the-water in Konoha. He flashed two subtle handsigns telling her to wait.
The genin hadn't noticed a thing, which was a little embarrassing. She slowly drifted to the front of the group with them, turning only when the Chuunin burst from their hiding spot and viciously took down a log cloaked in genjutsu flesh before turning to attack their client. Sakura had the presence of mind to dash between the nin and Tazuna –good girl—but Naruto seemed frozen when Aiko and Sasuke moved to the attacking Chuunin in a burst of motion. 'Holy hell, he's fast for an academy fresh genin,' she noted. Fast or not, he didn't have the killer instinct to actually take down his opponent on the first blow, so after Aiko ducked under the spiked chain and disemboweled her opponent with a kunai she flicked the resulting mess off her hand and forearm in one sharp movement and moved to intercept the second enemy Chuunin. He made a yowling sound of outrage, quickly cut off by the blow Kakashi delivered to the back of his neck. The surviving nin crumpled at his feet.
"Good job, minions." Kakashi turned a pleasant smile to their client. "Tazuna-san, I believe we need to have a talk about lying to foreign military powers and endangering children. I stayed back to see who the target was- it could have been a case of ninja attacking ninja. But they moved for you after they had eliminated the greatest threat."

Aiko spat up a stream of clear, clean water to rinse her hands while the adults talked (really, it was more 'while Kakashi intimidated the living hell out of that idiot'). Sakura, bless her simple soul, had the presence of mind to make an 'ew' face. The other kids hadn't managed to slip back into routine yet, but they were quietly listening to Tazuna's sob story of an oppressed nation living under the thumb of a despotic moron. Sasuke was almost shaking with excitement and adrenaline. Away from the rest of the group, looking stunned, Naruto was standing silent in a way that was totally unlike his usual behavior. Aiko frowned at how forlorn he looked.

"Are you alright, Scaredy-cat?" Sasuke gave an uncharacteristically sassy smirk along with the jab.

'Well, that'll perk him up.' Aiko shook her head and took a moment to secure their surviving prisoner with wire. They were probably going to kill him, but Kakashi might want to get some information first. 'Demon brother my ass.' She checked his hands again- making sure he couldn't move or make handsigns.

The conversation drew her full attention again once Naruto started talking. "We took this mission! We can't go back on our word."
Sakura looked uncertain, eyes flicking between her companions. Kakashi just hmm'd.

"Is everyone alright with that?"

'Is it really a choice? We could abandon him and back since he lied, and I would if we weren't toting bright-eyed, idealistic Academy baby genin. They'd figure out that we'd be leaving him to die. Harsh lesson for their first mission out, I think.' When they looked at her, she reluctantly agreed. "I'll be fine with going on." Sakura agreed last, a faintly determined smile flickering over her features. For the first time Aiko had noticed, Sasuke looked at the chit with something resembling approval.
"Alright," Kakashi agreed easily. "You three set up camp. Aiko, supervise. I'm going to have a talk with our friend here for information." She didn't envy the 'Demon brother'. Even if he shared information, he wasn't going to be let go.

________________________________________

Even at the civilian pace, there was less than a day of walking left until they crossed the border to Wave. Aiko felt twitchy all day—she knew that Zabuza was out there somewhere. Waiting around for an A-class missing nin to attack a genin team was a terrible, rotten no-good idea, but she didn't have any other options. Well, she could pretend to have a spontaneous vision and turn around, but it would be more likely that her team would think she was crazy. 'This whole mission is stupid. If finishing that bridge is so important, what the hell was this guy doing in an entirely different country in the first place?'
"Tazuna-san. Why were you so far away from Wave country if you're hurrying to finish that bridge?"

The old man's blood shot eyes slid over to her for a second before focusing back on his long-empty flask. "I was meeting with someone who was supposed to help." His expression twisted into something bitter. "Coward changed his mind, and left me high and dry in the middle of Fire country. At that point, it was too risky to try to go home alone, so I asked for an escort. After I made it to Konoha, I realized it would be a good idea to have protection while I actually worked. I'm a very important man, after all!" He puffed out his chest.

"Ah." 'This man is an idiot.' What little she caught of her teacher's carefully blank expression indicated that he might be having similar thoughts. Naruto gave a twitch and frowned slightly, looking around the underbrush. They were still in a lightly wooded area, but that would be ending soon. Shadows were just starting to peer over the horizon, but tonight they were going to walk past nightfall since they were so close to their destination. She might have relaxed if she wasn't so damn sure that they'd be getting attacked at any minute.

That suspicion was confirmed when Naruto flung a brace of kunai into a bush and bounded after them, shouting. Sakura's hand was suddenly boasting four kunai for claws and Sasuke balanced a shuriken between two fingers. Aiko herself slipped into the calm state of mind that characterized her fights.

"Just a bunny rabbit…" Naruto held the poor shaking animal up, cuddling it apologetically.

Sakura flushed. "You idiot! You got us all worked up over a rabbit?" Sasuke slumped in disappointment before giving the rabbit an odd look.

"He's right, someone is here," Aiko supplied. "That isn't a native animal."

As she spoke, an unnatural fog crept around her ankles, pulling gently into swirling eddies. It was a jutsu that she personally was very familiar with… and the size of it indicated that there was a decent source of water nearby. The three genin rustled uncomfortably as their vision was blocked with shocking speed and ease, going on the alert. Kakashi took up point, closer to the group than he usually favored. "Get down!"

Aiko didn't sense the large blade hurtling through the air at all, but she had already reflexively responded to her sensei's commanding tone. Sakura had been the one to drag their client down- she had a decent head on her shoulders, that one.
'Fuck, I'm glad sensei is here. I knew he would do that and I still had no idea it was hurtling towards us.'
She kept her focus on attempting to discern the enemy's position without her eyes. Zabuza must have been using some sort of distortion genjutsu, because pin-pointing his location from his voice was impossible. Instead, she tried to resort to a crude chakra sense- it didn't help in this case. His presence was monstrous- all she could tell was that he was too close, he was far too close and there was no way she could fight him on even terms.

'But ninja don't fight on even terms. Should I get rid of this fog? I could turn it into puddles or even evaporate it, given a moment, but he may react strongly to losing what he sees as a tactical advantage. Is it to my benefit to try to let this play out by formula? And even worse, I can't sense Haku at all, although I'm certain he's lurking about. Is Zabuza obscuring his signature, or is he just that good?'

The gravelly voice that she had never heard before but knew intimately had moved on to using scare tactics on the group—making the genin sharply aware that to him, they were just a cluster of targets. The calm cadence of his voice was assisted by a generous helping of KI. While Kakashi flashed away into the fog and began to clash steel, the three genin bristled with drawn weapons. Aiko merely stood in the deceptively casual 'waiting' stance of her modified taijutsu, ready for an attack on their group. She wasn't disappointed.

With a dark grin, a figure that she knew was probably a water clone was behind Naruto. She knew a clone could kill just as thoroughly as the real deal, so she felt no compunction about spitting a spray of water bullets at the figure. It dodged easily- but into the path of Kakashi's water clone. A third clone took him out and what turned out to be the real Kakashi slashed that clone into nothingness. Her head hurt from trying to keep track but her teacher seemed to know exactly what was going on when he spun to intercept their opponent from a different direction. After a brief exchange, the tall figure faded back into the mist.

"Aiko! Get rid of the mist."

'Well, if the decision is out my hands…' Bringing her hands together so that her fingertips touched, she closed her eyes for just a second to infuse the mist with her own chakra—and tried not to jump or dodge at the sudden murderous presence behind her, trusting that her sensei would take care of it. Sure enough, when she opened her eyes a millisecond later and took a deep breath in, she felt the light splash of a remarkably efficient water clone dash across her back and sensed her instructor taking off immediately after where he must have sensed the real Zabuza. With smooth efficiency she neutralized the lingering chakra that Zabuza had apparently not been maintaining –'makes sense, Kakashi is keeping him busy' – and exhaled a burst that forced the mist to condense and spray out in the same move. It fell harmlessly to the ground, but she maintained her grip on it so that he didn't use the now-soaked ground to his advantage.

"I didn't know that Kakashi of the Sharingan eye was babysitting brats nowadays," the now-visible man taunted, casually slinging his enormous sword over his shoulder. Kakashi merely shrugged, watching the other man warily. Before now, Aiko had thought her sensei was tall. But this guy… She took advantage of her first opportunity to study him—Zabuza of the Bloody Mist was fucking scary looking. He was a solid 7 feet tall and had the muscle of a linebacker coupled with a more than slightly sinister grin. As the whole package was wrapped up in pointlessly eccentric clothing mostly consisting of bandages, he didn't look like an opponent she would want to fight herself.

'They just don't make them like that in Konoha.'

"Like what you see, brat," the man she'd been staring at growled, boasting a shit-your-pants-terrifying grin with – yes, those teeth were actually pointed.

She looked at his eyes for the first time. "No," Aiko admitted honestly. "I suspect you're a crazy person and a really bad dresser to boot."

"Moving on," her teacher muttered as he swung into action again, ignoring the water clone that she'd been staring at for a moment while he intercepted the real assassin's swing with that scary ass sword. The fight seemed to be nearly one-sided and her teacher easily drove the enormous man backwards, away from the client and genin. It took a long moment for her to realize why that observation made her feel uncomfortable, but by that point the trap was set. The instant her teacher stepped foot onto the lake surface, she remembered. 'Oh, crap. The water prison.'

The horror and self-recrimination on her teacher's face when he realized what she had was something she'd never seen before. It was a stupid mistake to force him towards water, born out of arrogance in what seemed to be an easy fight and his desire to keep the three 12 year olds out of the fight.

"Sakura, protect the client. Naruto, Sasuke, disrupt that water clone. He can't make another one and he can't move without letting go of sensei," she barked, flipping through a quick series of handsigns." It didn't even occur to her to look to see if the genin obeyed.

"No!" Kakashi roared. "It's over, this fight is lost. You four need to get out of here. He can't go far from here while he's holding me."

"I don't abandon comrades!" Naruto shouted. The determined looks on Sasuke and Sakura's faces seemed to agree. Aiko couldn't help but smirk lopsidedly, hearing some sort of scuffle between the boys and the one water clone left to harass them. 'I've got a much better idea, sensei dearest.'

"Sorry sensei. You're just going to have to deal with the embarrassment of being rescued by your students." She released her attack into the water ten feet away from Zabuza, who had been preparing to dodge as best as he could without losing his grip on the water prison. The look of confounded surprise on his normally sinister face was downright comical when he realized she'd just electrocuted the entire lake, her teacher included before dropping into convulsions would have fueled a fit of giggles in another situation. "Sorry about that too," she muttered, leaping onto the water the instant that the electrical current had died down to grab both men. 'I didn't want to warn Zabuza, so I couldn't really say anything.'

As he was still stunned from her stupidly logical attack – really, why was it so surprising that she would use the one enormous weakness of his surroundings against him? – it was easy to hit the pressure point on the back of Zabuza's neck and put him out of commission temporarily before changing her grip to his arm so that she could pull both him and her ailing teacher out of the lake before they drowned.

When her teacher managed to pry his dark eye open, he seemed to be glaring reproachfully at her. "You're a horrible child," he wheezed, quickly recovering. It had been a relatively weak charge, meant more to stun than damage. She gave a pleasant smile and let him fall to the ground with a wet slop beside the unconscious criminal.

"You're welcome, sensei. I've gotten too fond of you to lose you now to a fashion disaster like that." Though he couldn't be fully recovered, her teacher regained his feet and looked his usual self except for the way he was leaning on her by the time she'd finished the sentence.

"Be on guard," she said quietly, more to the kids than her sensei. If she could sense Haku, no doubt he did as well. Kakashi may have been too tired to do so in the original fight, but this hadn't descended into a Sharingan-aided pissing match, so his chakra reserves should be fine. "There's someone else nearby—an accomplice of his no doubt." Aiko wouldn't have sensed him if Zabuza hadn't just slid off the map with his trip into sleepyland and if she hadn't known to keep looking for a second partner, but now that she had sensed Haku it was fair game to say something about that. Sasuke (who looked uncannily like a soaked and angry housecat) bristled, all sharp angles and tense muscles ready to explode. He didn't disappoint- when the senbon attack flew to their incapacitated enemy he deflected all but one with a kunai, scanning for the interloper. The lone senbon Sasuke wasn't fast enough to get planted itself into the side of Zabuza's neck. Naruto turned slightly green.

A figure about Sakura's proportions appeared in a flash of shunshin, crouched fifteen feet away. "My apologies. I have been hunting that man for quite a while. I will take his body back to the village for identification now."

"Bull," Aiko spat, using her free arm to force him to dodge a kunai. "That's no hunter-nin." Though all four kids were in ready stances and Haku instantly tensed for a fight, the next thing Aiko noted- well, she noted two things at once, really. The first was that no one was leaning on her anymore, and the second was that her teacher was standing behind the fake hunter-nin. The altercation was brutally short. The boy went down with one blow and no chance to fight back.

'Annnnd that's why he is an elite Jounin and I get to guard the gates from foreign merchants.'

"You know, I'm starting to think that someone wants you dead," Sasuke said dryly, giving their quivering client a scathing look.
"We may be out of our league," Sakura added nervously, creeping up and gently toeing the fallen boy, eventually taking off his mask after she got a 'go-ahead' nod from her sensei. She sucked in a breath. Whether that was from surprise, jealousy, or something else entirely was hard to say.

"Wow, she's prettier than Sakura-chan," Naruto breathed. Said girl flushed an unbecoming shade and clenched a fist. Aiko put a hand on the shorter girl's shoulder to hold her back from pummeling the idiot.

"Easy there. Naruto, that was rude. Sensei, are we going to continue? I mean, it was one thing to continue when we knew we were up against someone willing to hire two Chuunin missing nin. But this is the second group they've sent, and this guy is no Chuunin." She gestured carelessly at Zabuza. "Besides, isn't this Momochi Zabuza? I don't know about the kid, but there is definitely a bounty on this one and he probably has information about what is going on in Mist."

"You're looking at this the wrong way." Kakashi easily knelt to check for a pulse… and found none. Aiko tried not to shudder, being relatively certain that Haku had played his temporary death trick, but she had no evidence she could point to that indicated the man was still alive.

Kakashi was probably going to burn the bodies- standard procedure. If the man was still alive… It didn't bear thinking too much about.

"This Gato has no reason to know that his team has failed. The fact that we encountered four missing nin from the same village implies they were working as a team and Zabuza only stepped in when he confirmed the Chuunin failed. Gato probably won't have more missing nin on hire- he'd have no need for more than a Jounin and three Chuunin to run errands. Anyone else he has on staff will likely be just civilian thugs."

"Therefore, the mission is within our abilities," Sakura concluded easily, sounding relieved. "But sensei, doesn't that mean Tazuna-san is safe now?"

Sasuke gave her a condescending look. "Even untrained thugs could be enough to prevent the bridge from being built." The girl looked embarrassed and twisted her fingers together.

"So we could go with him and either just keep him safe or take care of the root of the problem. If Gato is dead, he won't be sending anyone else after our client." Aiko pointed out casually. Their teacher remained silent, clearly letting them work through the problem on their own. Tazuna, on the other hand, was staring at the four children with open-mouthed horror. 'What, never seen pre-teens blink off a few life-or-death battles in a day?' The thought was a bit silly. She knew full-well that the genin weren't as unaffected as they looked.

Naruto scratched his nose. "So, what are we going to do with her?" He pointed with his customary lack of finesse at Haku. There was a moment of awkward silence where everyone but him seemed to come to the same conclusion.

Sasuke shifted his weight, not quite managing to look at Haku. "We can't take them with us, and we can't let them recuperate and attack us again." He didn't seem able to conclude the statement, but Sakura turned green in a way that conveyed she knew what had to be done as well.

"But she's helpless!" Naruto protested indignantly. "We can't just kill her there while she's knocked out."

"Naruto, being a ninja means doing some unpleasant things. That person is far from helpless." Kakashi put uncharacteristic seriousness into his voice. "Any one of the ninja we encountered today would have killed you without a second thought. That's part of our world."

"But!"

"Stop. Now." The boy fell silent, defeated. "If you can't bear to watch, then you can start hiding the signs that there was a fight here. That goes for you two as well. Aiko, take care of the bodies. I'm going to run a perimeter check." With that, he gave them all a considering look and flashed out of sight with more urgency than his tone had indicated.

"You can't just.."

Aiko met her brother's whisper with a calm, firm gaze. "Don't look." She drew a kunai into her left hand.

________________________________________
Omake from time skip

Aiko ignored the irritating raindrops against her bare upper arms, parrying a blow from her opponent's short blade. Short or not, it was long enough to be a big pain when all she had were stumpy little kunai.

'I'm going to make sensei teach me how to use a sword soon. This shit gets really old.'

Her lips thinned as she pressed them together, feeling the wind whistle through her short hair when she spun under the man's guard in a maneuver that planted one of her feet with her heel touching his sandaled toes for just a moment before she whipped away to position herself behind him and savagely jab at his unprotected kidney with the handle of her kunai.

An ugly sound escaped through his teeth, and she could see that the cloud nin's face was strangely red under his long curly hair when he turned to face her and pushed her backwards with a rib-cracking kick.

She hit the dirt, rolling a few times before she regained her feet.

"Tough luck, kid," he drawled, looking genuinely sympathetic at the game-changing injury. Not sympathetic enough to let her live, though. Being a missing nin was tough. He couldn't indulge sympathy for a child who had been sent to take him in for his bounty. If he let her live, the next team would be full of kids ordered to take advantage of the supposed weakness.

Aiko put one hand to her ribs, trying not to gasp. "Funny, that's what I was about to say to you." As her chakra control flickered, so did the artificial rain. The man clearly noticed—he paled and leapt backwards, away from her and tried to escape from the reach of her jutsu. She followed at an easy lope that didn't bother her breathing too much, knowing there was no need for speed. His face had been exposed to her contact poison for at least two minutes. The increased circulation from the delaying fight and his frantic run would spread her poison all the quicker once it made it into his veins.

Surely enough, she found him collapsed and panting weakly. He attempted to glare at her through eyelids that fluttered and flirted with unconsciousness. "Bitch," he managed to gasp. She nodded in agreement.

Her teacher found her some time after. Aiko was perched precariously on a rock outcropping, keeping one eye on the man who was immobilized by her paralytic.

"Lazing about, I see," Kakashi called out, idly inspecting her catch. He had taken the more difficult opponent, of course. The head was already sealed up, the rest ashes in the wind.

"I almost got my butt kicked," she offered up as he drew closer. "I think I have a broken rib."
"Let me see."

The hint of concern in her teacher's voice made her smile, even as he prodded at her torso with two warm fingers in a way that fucking hurt.

Chapter Text

This chapter is short, but it had to be. It wraps up the Wave arc and works to make some important contrasts visible. The next chapter should be up pretty soon as well.

________________________________________

It hurt, a little, but she understood. Naruto wasn't like other ninja. He didn't understand yet that not everyone could shine so hard it hurt the eyes.

Her otouto hadn't so much as looked at her since she had slit Haku's throat (she didn't have to, but it was kinder than risking him waking up on fire) and hacked off Zabuza's head for storage in one of her scrolls. He'd impassively accepted a fourth of the extra weapons she had to unseal to make room and pretended not to smell the smoke from their impromptu cremation.
Sakura hadn't looked at the disposal either, but she'd gone about her business with efficient impassivity (or what passed for it in that girl, anyways).

Sasuke had been the surprise. He had watched the two bodies burn with something heavy behind his gaze, maintaining an almost respectful silence until the ash began to curl away on the breeze. If she hadn't had her foreknowledge, never once would Aiko have considered that the serious little boy in front of her would ever leave his village for power. He seemed the picture-perfect baby genin. His attitude was a little gruff and he had a decided anti-social bent, but those were hardly debilitating flaws in a shinobi.

'Maybe Orochimaru fucks him up more than I thought.'

When Kakashi had returned, he had gathered up the genin like wayward ducklings and shooed the entire train to Tazuna's house, the old man sullenly silent and shying away from the children he appeared to be unnerved by. His daughter had clucked when she saw him filthy and bedraggled, stubbornly clinging to the long-empty flask. He endured her fluttering about with a reluctantly tender expression that actually made Aiko recant some of her nastier thoughts about the old man so far.

While the old man settled in, Kakashi took the three genin on a walk around the town. Aiko killed time exploring the house and setting up traps on the perimeter while Tsunami's moon-faced idiot child glared at her out his window.

While she was the only ninja present, he had treated her to a long and boring monologue about how Gato was too powerful to fight, abandon ye all hope, yadda yadda yadda. Before he had finally burst into a fit of melodramatic tears and stormed away she was on the verge of scaring him into leaving her alone. After all, no one who had met the little shit would ever blame her.
Except perhaps her sensei, she reminded herself when she saw his stern mien upon return. For all that he could seem to turn his humanity off like a light switch when it suited him, he wouldn't tolerate her pinning the whiner to the wall with senbon.
From what the kids mentioned when they got back, Kakashi had used the trip as an exercise to test their situational awareness and ability to gauge a location. Even three thick-headed genin could apparently tell that Wave was desperately poor, painfully soggy, and filled with nervous people. To hear Sakura tell it, doors practically slammed in a chorus line as the group walked down trash-heaped street dotted with dull eyed beggars with distended bellies and gnarled, broken hands.

It was a familiar tactic. Yakuza and their ilk often mutilated dissenters instead of killing them. Eliminating enemies was scary, but leaving them around tends to leave a lingering reminder of dominance.

The familiarity was a bit soothing. It reinforced the theory that Gato had connections to organized crime. Predictability in enemies was good.

The girls had been given a room together and the three males were packed like sardines into the other room. The size of the house made it clear that Wave or at least Tazuna's family had not always been so poor—five bedroom homes were not common, even if the room that the girls were squeezed into was pitifully small. Naruto drew the best straw and ended up getting left off the watch schedule for the night, along with their amused and unsympathetic sensei.

Sakura had the first shift, trudging reluctantly out into the chill night air. Aiko managed to sleep well for almost three hours until the pink-haired girl crawled into bed and started her insufferable rustling.

Sharing a room wasn't new for Aiko, but sharing it with anyone other than her brother or her teacher was. She was more than used to the soft snuffling noises Naruto made in his sleep, and Kakashi's occasional grunts didn't bother her anymore. As it turned out, Sakura was a fidgety, restless sleeper, prone to sighing heavily, giving little whines into her pillow and burrowing around under the blankets. At one point Aiko caught the girl bent nearly in half backwards, pawing at her pillow with her toes curled nearly to her back. It was simultaneously adorable and annoying as all hell.

Irritated and unable to get more than a few hours of sleep, the lone chuunin went for a run around the perimeter instead, at one point alarming Sasuke who was on watch duty. "Can't sleep," she offered a little sheepishly, handing back the shuriken that he'd launched in surprise. "Sakura-san moves around a lot in her sleep."

"Hn." The boy tucked his weapon away. "When is your watch?"

"I'll just take over now." She sighed, giving a stretch. "One of us may as well get some sleep."

He raised one eyebrow in lieu of saying 'That's not likely.' Instead, he said shortly that "I can't sleep either."

She nodded in understanding. "As hypocritical as this is, you'll get used to it. I used to hate sharing a room with Sensei." She made a face. "It's best to let him wake up first. If you have to wake him up, do it from another room and prepared to dodge."
"That knowledge will make sleeping with him so much easier," came the dry reply.

 

Aiko fought down both a smile and the automatic innuendo that came to mind.

'He's more talkative when he's sleep-deprived.'

She didn't want to provoke him by making it clear she had noticed his more open behavior. When he wasn't doing his best to look the part of the hardened stoic, it was easy to see why Sakura and her giggly, dreamy ilk were drawn to him like butterflies to flowers. Even at twelve, he had a dark beauty that would mature into the category of 'total hunk' in a few years. Coupled with his obvious intelligence and talent, the boy had serious appeal. Poor thing. It was obvious he didn't want the attention.
"Did you sleep at all," she asked instead. He nodded tersely and turned his head slightly in a way that told he was visually scanning the area for threats, even though his eyes blended into the darkness so that she couldn't see where he was looking.
'Apparently conversation time is over.'

"It's almost dawn." She gave a stretch, fingers linked together. "Think it would be rude to poke around in search of breakfast?"
The look she got in reply was positively disdainful. She held her hands up. "Okay, fine. I'll stay out of Tsunami-san's kitchen."
"Barbarian." His lips tugged into a lopsided smirk. She made a theatrical hurt expression that he could probably spot even under her black half mask and flitted away.

When everyone was up and had been fed (and that annoying little shit whose name she hadn't bothered to remember had scurried away to sulk) the civilians cleared out of the room to get ready for the day while the nin talked. Looking indolent and bored, Kakashi gave out his orders. "Sasuke, you're in charge while I'm gone. I want you three to accompany Tazuna to the bridge. Aiko and I will be investigating and possibly visiting this 'Gato' person. If all goes well, there won't be a threat to Tazuna-san's person by the end of the day. I don't anticipate an attack at the bridge, since we'll be going to the source. Keep an eye open and run a perimeter. If you don't see us before dark, get Tazuna home."

"Hai." Sasuke seemed to be studying his new subordinates. The blonde was giving him a decidedly unfriendly stare, and Sakura had a dopey grin planted on her features.
Aiko couldn't blame him for whatever doubts he was probably having, no matter how much she loved her otouto.
Their teacher chuckled. "You three will do fine. Stick together and use your heads. A genin team is more than a match for anything a civilian can throw at you." Naruto stopped looking irritated with Sasuke long enough to beam proudly. He wasn't the dead-last her foreknowledge had painted him as, but Naruto was still pretty starved for genuine praise.

After the groups separated, Aiko looked wordlessly to her teacher for further orders from her perch on a rooftop. He didn't disappoint. "Two options. Investigate under henge by asking civilians, or remain unseen to address the problem directly. What's best for this situation and why."

"No point in trying the henge. The civilians are scared," she said immediately, not even looking at the pitiful display below. "We are likely to either get inaccurate information or risk someone telling Gato that people are asking about him the day after a group of ninja roll into town. Granted, he almost certainly doesn't know that Zabuza and his team have failed, but he will be nervous by now and will be listening to gossip. He'll have someone report that Tazuna is working on the bridge. Our best option is to locate him ourselves and take him out quietly, if that is our directive."

Her teacher hmm'd noncommittally. "Why do you think we're going to take him out?"

"It's within the parameters of our mission to ensure Tazuna's protection while he completes the construction project. If the source of the conflict is gone, he's in no danger." She frowned and added, "Assuming, of course, that no one is waiting to pick up the reins of the operation where he let off. If Gato is really involved in drug-running and a yakuza-like group of thugs, we might have to eliminate more than just the leadership."
"You're forgetting something."

Aiko felt her forehead crease. 'What… Oh.' "To the victor go the spoils," she added a little sheepishly. "He'll have shipping contracts. We should bring those back to Konoha and let administration figure out what to do with them. If we have them, no one else can step in and do the same thing to Wave until they've sorted through all the mess we're going to leave."
"The council can send someone to clean up anyone who might cause trouble in future. Good girl. You don't have any subtle assassination jutsu, do you?"

She shook her head and he frowned. "Remind me to teach you how to stop a heart. I'll be going in alone, then, and you can take the back as a scout."

It was pitifully easy to locate Gato's headquarters. It was isolated outside of the town and ostentatious to a degree that was laughable. He seemed to have tried to construct a traditional home like the Hyuuga had, but failed to capture the minimalistic beauty someone raised as nobility would prefer. He clearly had more money than sense.

Gato did have a fair few mercenaries posted outside, though. For a civilian they probably seemed like good protection. No wonder the townspeople were frightened. Her teacher frowned when he saw just how many there were and nonverbally signaled her.

'Change of plans. Surround base with rain. No one leaves.'

After the embarrassingly long moment before she realized he wanted her to use her paralytic, she nodded in agreement. It made sense. This many thugs could wreak havoc on the nearby town if they realized their source of pay was dead.

Her teacher settled down to wait- he'd head in a few minutes after the shower started; before people started collapsing, but late enough that no panic in the home would cause the patrolling thugs to go inside and discover the trick. Not that he would ever be sloppy enough to let anyone inside make a fuss.

Aiko unstoppered her favored poison and made a displeased face at what was left. She was going to have to mix up more when she got home—she hated doing that. It stank up the whole apartment. She started the drizzle very lightly, spreading it out as far as she could to obscure the fact that it was a suspiciously localized rain. The hired help cursed and talked amongst themselves when it started, but no one seemed to find it too strange.

And why would they? The sky was grey and the land of Wave was perpetually damp, as far as she could tell. It was almost criminally easy to pull moisture out of the low-hanging fog in order to supplement her water supply, siphoning the last of her poison out slowly and mixing it into the liquid.

Her teacher gently touched her shoulder to let her know he was leaving and then flickered away, inside the gaudy building within a second of exiting the treeline. She settled down to wait, focusing on sensing presence through her raindrops instead of abandoning the jutsu to pay attention normally. It was difficult for her to divide her attention and still maintain the right conditions, so she didn't even try.

When the first man slumped over, his companion tried to give a cry. Doubtlessly he discovered that the numbing in his limbs wasn't the result of the cold rain when he tried to check for enemies. Very quickly, the yard was full of still figures.
Aiko felt her lips pull into a strange smile at the altogether eerie sight. 'It's like Medusa's garden of stone.'

The thought was perhaps overly morbid- none of these men would die from this. They would, however, be completely out of commission for at least a day. Civilians didn't have the sturdy constitution or chakra-enhanced ability to speed up bodily processes like shinobi did.

'Rain, rain, go away. Please come back another day.'

She hummed the rhyme quietly, swinging her legs on her perch. With her eyes closed to help her focus on her rain-enhanced chakra sensing, Aiko leaned back against the tree trunk.

Her teacher's chakra signature pinged on her crude radar well before she heard him, the instant he stepped outside- she opened her eyes and immediately spotted him. One dark gray eye surveyed the lawn, scattered with fallen mercenaries as if they were abandoned dolls. He hmm'd. "I don't think we should leave them. There's too many."

Aiko nodded. "I take it there's no one left inside then?"

With quiet efficiency, she and her teacher flitted about and gently, painlessly spilled blood all over the grass in front of the mansion.

________________________________________

"And you should have seen us! Me and the bastard were like wham!" Naruto illustrated this critical point by slamming a fist into his flat palm, knocking the spoon out of his soup and sending it winging towards Sakura. He didn't even notice her snatch it out of the air or scowl at the liquid on her dress.

Sasuke rolled his eyes, looking a little pleased with himself but less willing to brag openly. "It was just a few civilian thugs," he said calmly. "We handed them over to the local authorities."

Aiko carefully didn't allow her face to let on to the fact that those authorities had probably lynched the prisoners. It didn't seem like the kind of thing a boy whose family had managed a police force would like to hear.

"They didn't stand a chance!" The blonde crowed. "And Sakura-chan knocked the last one out with a bento." The girl flushed, but Naruto seemed to think the last point was both crucial and impressive. Aiko did her best to keep a straight face while Tsunami cracked up and Sasuke smirked. At the head of the table, their client beamed.

"I had my doubts, but you Konoha ninja are all right." He slurped down a frightening amount of alcohol and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. Tsunami cringed visibly. The whiny child whose name she still didn't remember barely seemed to notice his grandfather at all. Instead, he was staring stupidly at Naruto with his jaw hanging open. It was either hero worship or a stroke. "I've decided to name my great bridge for your team! When it becomes incredibly famous, everyone will know about the Great … What's your team called, anyway?"

"Team seven," Sasuke said immediately at the same time Sakura said "Team Kakashi." They exchanged glances, but neither of them managed to speak again before Naruto banged a fist on the table and shouted "Team Kick-ass!"

There was a moment of silence, punctuated by the sound of a page flipping. "I like Naruto's suggestion," Kakashi said absentmindedly. Sakura groaned into her soup, but a corner of her mouth twitched up.

"Can you name a bridge that?" Tsunami asked dubiously.

They left the next morning—before the excrement really hit the fan over the slayings outside of town. It was very plausible that no one even knew yet, actually. At (genin) ninja speeds, team Kick-ass made it to the front gates of Konoha within two days. On the way, Naruto had managed to spill the fact that Sasuke had activated his Sharingan in their brawl against the thugs they'd f ought at the bridge and was giving serious thought to calling him "Pink-eye" instead of "Bastard". The sheer irritation of listening to the blonde re-hash the benefits and drawbacks of each name actually caused poor Sasuke to involuntarily activate his eyes again- three tomoe total, one in his right eye and two in his left.

They stood around while their team leader idly scrawled the last scintillating entry into the mission report he'd been writing (from what she could read over his shoulder, it looked to be 'met and eliminated targets. My minions eliminated civilian targets. Returned home. Will get barbeque tonight.') and then followed him to hand it in.

Team Kick-ass didn't quite manage to escape the building before the chuunin who had accepted the report groaned audibly and told them to wait in an adjoining room. Apparently missions that increased in difficulty while in-field had to be verbally debriefed on the same day.

The Hokage had been properly proud and horrified in turn, listening to Naruto's theatrical rendition interspersed with bland corrections from Kakashi and Sasuke. Aiko merely stood quietly at attention, trying not to look too bored. The Hokage doubtlessly knew she didn't like him. Sakura was uncharacteristically cowed by the presence of the current military dictator. As always, Naruto completely bulldozed over the obvious hints that his companions were uncomfortable or uninterested in favor of extending the conversation as long as possible.

By the time they finally escaped, three genin had six D-class and one A-class mission on their record. It was ridiculous enough that Aiko had to force down giggles, but on the bright side the pass he gave them ensured they didn't have to do any more D-ranks to complete the requirements to qualify for the Chuunin exams. They could devote the rest of the time to training, if they wanted.

The Hokage had put Kakashi on the spot- pulling Aiko away from the team temporarily for a semi-long term project and telling him that his genin wouldn't be taking any more missions until the exams.

The silver-haired man had all but groaned.

'That was shitty,' Aiko noted. 'Now Sensei can't motivate them with the promise that they won't get more crappy missions if they work hard.' A large part of how Kakashi interacted with his team was subtle manipulation and mindfucks. By undermining his authority in front of his team, the Hokage had damaged his ability to lead them and make decisions at his own discretion. Granted, he was in fact Kakashi's superior as well, but why the hell would you put trainees under a supervisor and then undermine that authority? It was counterproductive. The genin should at least be under the illusion that their sensei had control over their education.

Sometimes she wondered if the Hokage was an asshole or just a total fucking moron.

The next morning, she reported to her new supervisor, Mitarashi Anko. The flames were almost six feet tall when she made it to the meeting place.

 

Chapter Text

"Buuuurn!" Anko's long coat flapped around her shins from the explosive force she had just released in training ground 44. She all but cackled, her fingers curled into claws and arms raised above her head in a V shape. "Burn baby, burn!"

A small figure stood on the other side of the clearing, eyes widening at the wall of fire traveling her way at high speed.
"Oh holy hell."

Aiko did her best to ignore the smoke in her face, flashing through the hand-signs for a truly epic water jutsu. The resultant wave splashed over the burning patch of forest in a sizzling tidal force. The other kunoichi leapt straight up, over the cresting water and flipped mid-air with panache before landing silently on top of the moving water in a theatrical pose.
"I had it under control, kid," Anko growled. "That was deliberate."

'Sure it was.'

Aiko shrugged apologetically. "I can't help but find open flames in the middle of Konoha a bit unnerving, Anko-sempai."
"Eh." The curvy brunette ('Does it count as brunette even though it has purple tints?', Aiko wondered) shrugged away the implications of that statement. "So, you're my new minion?" She spat a short wooden stick out from between her lips, letting it slide into the charred ground. "Hope you're ready to do a whole load of shit work." She gifted the chuunin with a feral grin. "Because we got a lot to do. Starting with remodeling this training ground to be suitable for the chuunin exams."

Slowly, deliberately Aiko turned to survey the area. She hadn't trained in the 'Forest of Death' before, but it looked like any other training ground- thick forested areas cut by occasional streams. Then she raised an eyebrow at her supervisor.
The older girl scowled. "It wouldn't be much fun to herd the brats through a plain, boring set up. We're going to wire this place up for surveillance, plant the motherload of traps, and spruce up the wildlife."

"Is it for a survival exercise, then?" That made sense. As it was now, traveling through the forest would be little challenge even for a group of genin. It was likely that when she designed the second task, Anko had the twin concerns of wanting to intimidate foreign ninja (making a lasting impression that would keep them from underestimating Konoha) and wanting to ensure the general safety of the participants. It would be a waste to kill off more promising ninja than they had to. As this exam was going to be flooded with clan heirs and other genin of interest, the council was probably more invested in keeping them alive than in other years.

Her own chuunin exam had been in Sand, where they apparently weren't as big on teamwork as Konoha was. She had been allowed to compete alone, which had been both a curse and a blessing.

That would never happen in Konoha, though. In only a few hours they blazed trails through the forest, creating clearings and minimizing water supplies according to a map Anko had dreamed up. By changing the layout, even ninja who had trained in the area would be at a loss.

Plus it was a marvelous opportunity to destroy a whole lot of the environment. Aiko couldn't help but wince when hundred-year old trees were crisped and her new supervisor enthusiastically used earth jutsu to creatively add hills, holes and artfully shaped outcroppings. Her job was mainly the water system- they were redirecting entire streams into just two water pathways in order to create conflict by forcing teams together.

The whole thing was exhausting, and Aiko was about ready to collapse when they had finally altered the landscape to Anko's specifications. A nap was not in the cards, however.

"Get your lazy ass up, minion. How are you with summoning scrolls?"

Aiko blinked. "Using them?"

The older kunoichi gave her a disparaging look that was enhanced by the severely singed state of her clothes. "Don't be thick. I hope your calligraphy is good, because you are going to be making up scrolls and copying a lot of fancy poetry." She grimaced and scraped her tongue out over her teeth as if to get rid of a bad taste. "Better you than me. Just remember, failure on your part will end in the maiming of your fellow shinobi. No pressure."

For some reason it hadn't occurred to her that her home village was shamefully cheap. Instead of just paying a real seal maker to produce the dual scrolls to summon chuunin at the end of the task, it had been included as one of many items that had to be done by the two of them before the exams. That meant that she was essentially learning an entirely new skill set for B-class compensation that also included a host of other duties, a prospect that she was a little bitter about.

In a strangely domestic turn of events, they went together to pick up the supplies for her next task. Aiko was not surprised in the least to see that shopkeepers bowed anxiously and hurried to get her adult companion out of their stores.
She quite liked Anko and had for all the time she had known her. That didn't change the fact that it was easy to see Anko had a huge personality and verbally abusive tendencies when she got impatient.

Since her brother was probably going to be in the exam, for confidentiality reasons Aiko could only work on that project at Anko's home, a traditional styled house with a completely dead garden out front. The black vines and crunchy leaves had hinted at the state of the place, but it was only clear once she stepped inside that said dwelling place was a terrifying pit. She knew intellectually that many powerful shinobi had coping mechanisms. Apparently, one of Anko's was hoarding. The front room had artfully stacked piles of boxes of chocolate up to her waist, what appeared to be every dvd available in the fire nation and an entire wall of bookshelves full of everything from Jiraiya's porn series to ghost stories to a glittery red tome with the somewhat ominous title 'The Art of the Bitch'.

The twelve (almost thirteen!) year old carefully stepped into the room around piles of mission reports and identical pairs of sandals ("I can only ever find the left ones," Anko had explained contemplatively when she noticed Aiko's incredulous expression), clutching her supplies carefully. She had taken the academy classes on introductory level seal work, but they had never actually made seals. Knowing the symbols and having a keen eye for detail would probably get her through this exercise, however. She hoped.

At Anko's direction, she gingerly piled the fancy scrolls onto the central table next to what appeared to be a naked painting of Anko generously splattered in blood, signed 'from a fan'. The older kunoichi grinned at the sight, helping Aiko set out the bottles of special ink without breaking or spilling anything.

"Open those up and bleed in them," she commanded, as casually imperious as any queen could hope to speak. The redhead dutifully followed directions while Anko flickered out of the room to rustle around. She winced when something shattered. The voice that called back sounded a little distant. "I have plenty of brushes around here somewhere… Did I give you the scroll you'll be copying already?"

Aiko rolled her eyes and pulled a short bandage out from her thigh pouch to wrap around her bleeding palm, swiping up the droplets she'd accidentally gotten on the table's surface before they dried. "Not yet." With a chink, the now-closed bottles were shoved into a wide wooden box in order to keep them all in one place.

"Here." A scroll landed on the couch beside Aiko, on top of a purple decorative pillow. Her companion's aesthetic tastes seemed to run to purple, red, and tan, though the walls were traditional rice paper. "And this is the sissy fucking poem you'll be writing out. Let me check your work once you've copied one of each. I'm going to do a food run. Have any requests?"

Working on the preparations for the Chuunin exams was long, boring, and occasionally ended in hand cramps or mild electrical shocks from those sketchy surveillance units they planted in the forest at strategic locations. It also had the unpleasant side effect of completely disrupting her usual schedule- she hadn't had so much as a spar with Ino or morning conditioning with Team 7 since she had gotten reassigned.

More than once, Aiko found herself wondering how her genin were doing—and wasn't that a funny way for her to think of a group of kids her age? Still, she couldn't help but feel protective. If her foreknowledge was worth half a damn, shit was going to get serious soon.

The thought made her glum. Through sheer luck (and the fact that someone had tattled on her for having a decent working relationship with the occasionally terrifying Mitarashi Anko) she had gotten the one assignment that would place her sort-of close to team 7 when they encountered Orochimaru, but there was likely jack shit that she could do. There would be serious diplomatic repercussions if there was any hint of favoritism on her part—her career would pretty much be over. No one would trust her on a mission above C-class importance.

Besides all that, there was approximately zero chance that she could help fight off a sannin anyways. The one thing she kept wondering:

'Are they really in danger anyways?'

As far as she knew, Orochimaru wouldn't kill any of them. That was largely out of selfishness. He wanted Sasuke alive, and that meant someone had to watch out for him while he was assimilating the curse seal. There was absolutely zero chance that any of them would have escaped if he really wanted them dead.

She could only conclude that if things went predictably, her otouto and her team would not be in life-threatening danger. That was a pretty big 'if' to work with, however.

The issue was further complicated by the fact that she was starting to like Sasuke. It was hard to cold-bloodedly choose not to interfere in an attack on his person that would irrevocably change his personality, body, and put him in danger when she actually knew the kid. He was actually sweet underneath all the prickles—he would have done well in his family's police force. Sasuke seemed to want to protect people. The obsession with power wasn't really present yet.

Sakura, on the other hand, Aiko wouldn't have minded throwing to the wolves. Whatever potential the girl had was still invisible at this point, obscured behind her obnoxious personality, simpering mannerisms, and hair-trigger temper.

Feeling snippy, Aiko closed the tub of wax she had been rubbing into her boots and moodily tossed it aside. She was thoroughly sick of being responsible, but she dutifully trudged off to the kitchen and pulled out rubber gloves, a white sanitary face mask and the herbs and agents she used for her paralytic. She started the non-toxic base in the pot reserved for this task before slipping on the mask and hanging the "Mixing chemicals, do not disturb" sign on her front door. Naruto would probably still be at training for several hours and she didn't often get other visitors, but it was better to be safe than be stuck paying someone's hospital bills.

While she worked, Aiko turned on the radio (a new and expensive acquisition she never would have been able to purchase on a genin salary). Then she turned it off. "I fucking hate the koto," she muttered bitterly, stirring a little more vigorously than was necessarily wise. The process was intimately familiar and incredibly boring. Measure, pour. Stir, simmer, adjust heat. Prepare ingredient and measure, stir, turn up heat until roiling boil.

The last of the concoction was being carefully funneled into glass vials when enthusiastic thudding on the staircase alerted her that her otouto was barreling up. Aiko rolled her eyes, wondering if it was even worth it to scold him when the door burst open. The dangerous chemicals were put away, yes, but she had literally just finished and hadn't taken down the sign yet. For all he could have known, he was walking into thick clouds of lethal poison.

"Don't you read?"

Aiko slipped the first two vials into her equipment pouch and tucked the others safely away in the cupboard before her otouto wandered into the kitchen looking cheerfully disheveled.

"Whatcha mean, oneesan?" She heard the sound of porcelain and turned to smack his hand just as it escaped from the jar, cookie in hand. He flopped down into his chair, stretching back with both hands over his head so that the front legs came off the ground.

She sighed, rinsing her pot and setting it in the sink. "I had a note on the door that you shouldn't come in. Naruto, you need to pay attention. I was working with dangerous chemicals." She pulled the door open and ripped off her note before locking back up, setting down a quick genjutsu and kunai trap while she was at it. It was a little early to set up the nightly traps, but she might as well since they were both home early. It wasn't quite eight pm.

Frankly, she was tired of her current assignment and just wanted to get the stupid exam over with. It was now nine days until it started, which meant that the final preparations were being done in the next couple of days before foreigners started to arrive. She completely anticipated getting bit at least once by the rest of the exotic animals they were herding around in the forest.

 

"Why does it matter? I'm fine, aren't I?" Despite the pout she heard in his voice, Aiko wasn't willing to let it go. She rather frivolously used shunshin to position herself behind him and gave him a nougie, refusing to let go even when he shrieked and wiggled. "Hey, cut it out!"

"Then don't be such a butt!" A downright shocking amount of dirt and assorted filth fell out of his hair and gently drifted to the ground. She grimaced. "Oh, that's gross. Go wash yourself, stinky."

"Am not!"

"How would you know?" She slipped her hands to the back of his chair and pushed forward so that all four feet were on the ground. "I bet you can't even smell yourself over the sound of how loud you are."

"…wait, what?"

"You heard me."

________________________________________
"Who are you?"

Aiko narrowed her eyes at her idiot of a teacher. "Oh sorry, I forgot about your late-stage Alzheimers. I take it the treatment isn't going well."

"I suppose I wouldn't know." Kakashi calmly scanned his book.

Aiko, Sasuke and Sakura rolled their eyes in unison, getting to their feet/ jumping down from his tree. The wait for their sensei had been especially long today, which was more than a little annoying. Naruto had already lost interest in the conversation and was fidgeting, ready to get to work. It was the day before the exam—the culmination of what both groups had been working towards. Anko had laughed at Aiko when she showed up at her house that morning ("Idiot, take the day off").

"Well?" Sakura demanded, looking at her teacher. "How are you going to torment us today?"

Mildly surprised, Aiko gave the girl a once-over. Kakashi must have been especially mean in the month she'd been too busy to come to team practices in order to put her in the kind of mood where she'd abandon her thin veneer of politeness without provocation.

"Yeah, old man." Naruto bounded over, practically vibrating with excess energy. "A race or a free-for-all or maybe we can do that jutsu competition again! I'll kick the bastard's ass this time, 'ttbayo!"

If she hadn't been looking, she might have missed the twitch Sasuke suppressed.

"Mah," the man sighed, still not looking at any of them. "Actually, I just wanted to tell you we have no practice today."
The field was completely silent.

As if he was alone, Kakashi quietly mused, "Why does everyone call me old?"

"You made us wait four hours to tell us that there was no practice today," Sakura said, tone somewhere between incredulous and calm rage, ignoring his rumination.

Naruto's eye twitched rapidly and his cheeks started to fill with color. Sasuke and Aiko merely exchanged tired glances- why were those two so surprised? The enormous overreactions had ceased to be cute a long time ago.

"Mmhm. I just wanted to be sure you three had a nice, relaxing day before your test tomorrow." He casually raised a hand. "Bye." In a poof of foul-smelling smoke (and he could totally control that, he didn't have to make it so unpleasant) the figure that she now knew had been a clone dispersed. He was probably giggling miles away.

'Maybe that's what the giggles usually mean,' she thought crabbily. 'When he laughs it's because he's tormenting someone from a distance. It would explain a lot.'

Then Aiko sighed. 'If he isn't going to be an adult and make sure they're ready for the test, I'll do it.'

The three genin turned with varying levels of excitement when she clapped her hands decisively. "Alright then. We're going to hang out at my apartment."

Sakura's eyes flickered to Sasuke and she started to open her mouth—doubtlessly to make excuses and ask Sasuke to hang out alone. She stopped when Aiko turned a glare on her, then scanned the other two just as sternly. "We are having fun time," she said calmly. "Fun time is mandatory. I want the two of you to pack everything you think you will need for your tests tomorrow and meet in front of the red apartment complex on Tobirama and sixth in fifteen minutes, twenty for Sakura since she lives further away. If you aren't there, I will come and get you. Go now."

All three genin dashed away. Alone in the field, Aiko gave a yawn and slowly sauntered home. 'Why do they seem to think I have authority over them?' Her field authority ended when they weren't interacting in an official capacity.

Even Sakura made it within the allotted fifteen minutes, toting a heavy bag and a short stack of hair ties on her thin wrist. Aiko gave that concession a nod of approval—it was unusually practical for her, but still appreciated. The boys had packed lighter. They settled into the living room for Aiko to check it over. While Sakura pretended not to look at the pictures on the walls (all either photographs of the two of them, Kakashi or Ino or sketches) Sasuke slinked in looking spectacularly uncomfortable in the domestic setting.

"Naruto, make tea please." Aiko unzipped the first pack, checking the contents by feel.

"Uh, yeah." He picked his way to the kitchen and uncertainly rustled through the tins of tea. "Any preferences?"

Sasuke remained silent, so Naruto shrugged and made Sakura's pick. With her legs curled under the table and her back to the couch, Aiko bit her lower lip in thought. "Sasuke, did you intentionally leave out smoke pellets?"

"I've never used them,' he pointed out. Aiko tilted her head in thought, counting his soldier pills.

"Yes, but it's always good to be able to make a quick escape if a fight isn't worth your time and you're on a schedule."
He slowly cocked his head. "Is that a hint," he asked dryly, the slightest tinge of humor in his voice.
Aiko felt her face flushing. 'Oh, crap. I guess it was a little bit of a giveaway.'

"Definitely not," she said a little too weakly to be convincing, leaning her head forward to hide behind a curtain of hair. The follow-up huff of amusement let her know that he didn't buy it, but he dropped the topic. He wasn't very chatty anyways.
Sakura and Naruto fell into their usual bumbling comedy act, shouting, whining, and shaking fists (Sakura, Naruto and then Sakura again, respectively) while the tea steeped and Aiko supplemented Naruto's pack with some really nasty explosive tags. Then she thought better of that and handed them to Sasuke.

"Here you go." Naruto clanked down four cups of tea and collapsed to the floor criss-cross applesauce. Sakura leaned forward for a cup and gingerly settled onto a corner of the couch, looking uncertain and shy.

With a sigh, Aiko closed the last pack and set them by the door. "You're all good to go for tomorrow. I just wanted to be sure. Alright." She beamed at the three genin in her front room. "We're going to spend the night together so no one is late. Can't hurt to do some last-minute bonding, right? Anyone hungry?"

Naruto semi-frantically cleaned up the restroom while Sakura went on a run for fresh vegetables clutching a wad of Aiko's money. She set a sullen-faced brunette to work cutting and seasoning meat while she hummed, clearing the table of all seal ink and other assorted mess.
________________________________________
"Sasuke… you're going to make a great housewife for some guy."

The brunette made a violent jab for Naruto with his chopsticks, missing only because the blonde leaned back to pat his belly in a satisfied manner.

"Take it as a compliment," Sakura advised. "This is amazing!" The pink-haired girl practically had stars in her eyes.
'She would have thought it was amazing no matter what,' Aiko thought dryly. 'It was made by her precious Sasuke-kun. Can't help but notice that I'm getting no credit.'

There was some truth to Sakura's claim, however. "If only I had known you could cook like this earlier…" Aiko gave a long, luxurious stretch. The brunette turned his face away abruptly, but both girls could see the flush on his neck. They exchanged a rare, smug smile. "Hey Naruto, take care of the dishes."

"Why me?" he protested crossly, swinging back up.

The three kids who had worked on dinner simultaneously raised one eyebrow- the left for Sasuke and Sakura, the right on Aiko.
He scoffed. "Ugh, fine." With a clatter he gathered up the dirty plates and trudged off to the kitchen.

The room was momentarily awkward. Aiko felt like rolling her eyes- none of them knew how to interact outside of training and missions. 'How did Sakura get stuck with an entire team of socially awkward weirdoes?' Unfortunately, that category included herself, so she didn't really know how to break up the tension.

The girl might have been wondering the same thing.

"Ah, Aiko-san, thank you for helping us get ready." She inclined her head politely, and when the light caught green eyes on the way back up and glittered Aiko suddenly saw just what her otouto found so appealing about this girl.

"You're welcome, Sakura-chan. I'm really hoping all goes well for you three tomorrow." Her tone was a little wistful when she added, "I'm really hoping to get some good missions again. This last month has kind of been a bummer."

Sasuke snorted indelicately. "Couldn't possibly have been much worse than what Kakashi put us through." If anyone else had said that, Sakura would probably have protested. As it was, she merely looked a little uncomfortable.

"Sasuke-kun is right!" she declared. "I think he gets way too much fun out of tormenting us."

"You wanna bet?" Aiko asked jokingly. "I bet I have worse Sensei stories than you do."

Even Sakura looked skeptical. Aiko waved a hand sincerely. "No, really, it's true. You guys are benefitting from him having two years experience training a subordinate. When he first became my teacher… It was bad. Has he had you break into other ninja's houses yet?"

Big green eyes went even wider. "Isn't that illegal," Sakura asked, sounding scandalized.

________________________________________

Aiko curled and uncurled her toes inside her nice, warm boots, cursing the chilly morning air that raised goosebumps along her uncovered arms. She was the only one stationed in the central tower. Anko was likely running last minute preparations before she went to collect the ducklings from Ibiki.

Static hissed in her headset and she grimaced, pulling it slightly away from her ear. Not so much that she couldn't hear if someone else got on the frequency, however. She was one of only a few on that channel for the day, along with Anko and a squad that would be circling the training ground to make sure nothing got out of hand. Hours passed. Her headset clicked on and Anko's voice filtered through, sounding tinny.

"Midgets are on the move."

A male voice crackled on. "Mitarashi-san, you are supposed to say 'over' when you are finished transmitting. Over."

"Suck some big hairy balls, over."

Aiko snorted, and then gave a quick look around to make sure no one had heard. She was still alone. The sun had crawled along the skyline and at least an hour had passed before she heard signs of human life in person (the occasional reports on her headset didn't count. It was a mostly boring, methodical 'check in-check out' deal). Curious at who had made it to the tower so early, Aiko swung her legs over the railing of the curved staircase that lead all the way up to the top of the tower and allowed herself to go into a free falls head first, appreciating the feeling of air whipping over her face. She flipped midair to kick off of the wall and jump under the partial ceiling into the entry way.

Two of the three kids standing there looked at her curiously. Aiko grinned, leaning forward cheekily. "Hey, Kunoichi-san, shinobi-san! I remember you from Suna, two years ago. Whose your cute friend?"

The blonde who could only be Temari turned a thoroughly unbecoming shade of red.

'This is probably a really stupid idea,' she thought happily. 'Teasing Gaara is a downright awful idea.' It was awful… and she loved it.

Her fellow redhead turned to look at her for the first time (and he was REALLY a redhead, not like Kankuro's reddish brown). Well. It was more of a 'glare' than a 'look', she decided, popping her gum. Semantics.

"You're the first team in. I take it this was no trouble, then?"

"Mitarashi-san, we have trouble. Over."

Aiko stiffened, missing whatever Kankuro was saying. "Just a minute," she said distractedly, holding one hand to her ear to better position the headset. Temari gave her a rude look, turning away to confer with Kankuro about the scrolls. She heard the summoning go off, but didn't feel the urge to check her work.

"What is it, shitstain?"

"Bodies by the fifth gate, but they're like nothing I've ever seen. Their faces are just gone, like they melted off. I don't know who could do something like this. Over."

There was a long moment of silence on the headset and distracting chatter from whatever idiot chuunin had come to tell the sand kids they had passed. She crossed the room, listening intently, all but holding her breath.

"I do," Anko said, sounding more serious than Aiko had ever heard. She shivered. 'It's starting.' Aiko had been waiting anxiously, half-expecting that nothing would happen and the exam would go fine. "I want a full ANBU team. I'm heading in. That's Orochimaru's work, I bet anything. That fucker is in the forest."

Aiko clicked on her headset. "Permission to rendezvous, Mitarashi-san? Over."

"Fuck no," came the irritated reply. There was a short pause. Aiko found with mild surprise that her fingers were actually shaking where they were pressed against her fingers. "Actually, you can help. Soak the whole fucking forest and direct me to the biggest, baddest chakra signature in it."

"Understood, over."

She decisively turned her attention from the headset, surveying the room again. Kankuro was giving her a wary look as he trudged up the stairs behind his siblings. "Kunoichi-san!" Temari turned, a sneer on her face. "You and your team should be careful. We have an S-class criminal in the forest killing genin for some kami-forsaken reason." As the girl blanched, Aiko leapt ahead of the group, taking the stairs at a sprint, planning on going to the very top level. "Could I get your help for a moment?"

"You need my help in the shower room," Temari said flatly, looking almost literally deflated. It apparently wasn't the action she'd hoped for. Aiko ignored the attitude, leaping to the window and drawing her fist back to punch once, twice, and it shattered on the third blow, exploding mostly out into the forest. "Hey, what the hell-"

"Turn on all the faucets. Now." Aiko kicked the last bit of glass out from the edges and grabbed the sides, ignoring how it cut into her hands. "I'm going to siphon it outside. Leave it on and try to prevent flooding in the tower until I ask you to turn it off, okay?"

The other girl reluctantly followed directions, letting the water build up. Aiko flipped out onto the roof, landing on the roof like some kind of gargoyle. She took a long breath, and held, finding her center and preparing for a sustained technique. Then she reached for all the water below her, ripping it from the showers, drains, and speeding it out of the pipes. Something broke, but she calmly ignored Temari's shriek and subsequent cursing. She whipped her arms out to the sides, sweat forming as she accumulated a massive glob of liquid in front of her and infused it with her chakra.

Then she made it rain, all the way out to the gates and stretching into Konoha proper for good measure. Chakra signatures ping-ping-pinged on her radar- familiar and unfamiliar, ANBU, Anko, a veritable fuck ton of weak little genin, her brother… and.

"Holy shit."

Aiko clicked on her headset. "Anko, thirty degrees west of your position, about a mile out." Her voice cracked. "He's with my brother's team."

Chapter Text

In the belly of the beast, Naruto struggled. He couldn't get a grip on the snake's slick insides to force his way back to the mouth…

'Why would I want to go back to the mouth? Poisonous fangs that way.'

If he couldn't get out through the hole that already existed, he'd have to make one. His only blades were kunai, though. Cutting that way would take too long. He'd be severely burnt by that point. That in mind, he pulled the one explosive tag he'd been allowed with trembling fingers, despite his restricted state. He kept it close to his chest to keep as much slime off of it as possible, and then stuffed it in his left glove for the same purpose.

"Let's hope I can give it right amount of charge." He'd never been good at using the least amount of chakra possible. Naruto had always been best at making enormous explosions from even cheap tags. But that would kill him in these confined quarters. He grimaced against the pain of the stomach acid around him and wiggled as far in one direction as he could before hooking the glove around his last kunai… which he then drove as far as possible into the side of the beast.

It was hard to tell, but the sinuous rocking movement he'd been feeling seemed to get more violent. Naruto grimaced, wishing for air, and reached his hand through the hole he'd pierced to touch the end of the kunai, feeling wet meat around his hand, stretching and convulsing… and then he lit up just the one finger that touched the ringed end of his kunai with the lightest tinge of neutral chakra.

________________________________________

"I can't wait any more…"

Aiko bit clean through her lower lip, blood wetting her chin and mixing with the cold rain. She flipped to look into the bathroom, startling Temari. "You can turn them off. Thank you."

Before the girl could respond, Aiko straightened and bounded over the treetops to where she felt that monstrous chakra that nearly obscured team seven's signatures. Anko was mere moments away from reaching them, an ANBU team hot on her heels.
"Anko, I'm coming."

She didn't get a reply. The older girl was doubtlessly a little preoccupied.

________________________________________

Sakura whined through her teeth, eyes frantic in her skull. She didn't have the time to brush her now-wild hair out of her face, and if she did it would be more likely that she would use the time to address the freely bleeding wound in her shoulder. She had been forced to pull out the kunai pinning her to the tree in order to escape the next hit.

Something twinged in her knee when she bounced off a tree trunk and struggled to get upright, working desperately to clear the area that was being torn apart by whatever the hell that jutsu was. She blinked back tears of pain and fear, feeling cold on the back of her neck.

'This guy… he's a monster! He's no genin.'

She hadn't seen Naruto in almost three minutes- not a very long time in normal circumstances, but seeing as he'd disappeared just before the scariest fight of her life against someone who was obviously toying with Sasuke-kun (and that meant he was far out of her league), she was fucking terrified that he was already dead.

'I can't think about that now!' She strained her muscles, fighting her way through debris and wind that cut and tongues of fire towards her other teammate - what a terrible time for the rain to suddenly stop, but at least nothing was catching fire. She could barely see his silhouette through the mess—he was standing too close, far too close to their monstrous opponent.
Sakura had to have been hallucinating, though, because it looked like his fucking head popped off attached to a taffy neck and stretched out to kiss Sasuke. Inanely, she couldn't help but think, 'You jackass, Sasuke's first kiss was supposed to be mine.' Even though that couldn't be what had happened, and Sasuke's knees were buckling under. She launched off to catch his prone body, muscles screaming, opponent forgotten. That was Sasuke falling. She couldn't let Sasuke fall.

Out of the corner of her eye, it seemed that the man was slowly turning to look at her with a flash of yellow eyes. Couldn't be. No one had yellow eyes. She grit her teeth and reached, ready to grab Sasuke and spring away, she saw someone coming in hot nearby, seconds away, she had backup she was going to be fine and she could find Naruto no baka and hit him for scaring her like that and everything would be fine, it would…

"How annoying," Orochimaru hissed, snatching the little brat right out of the air and ripping out the front of her neck in one smooth motion, stunned green eyes staring up at the warm spray of blood that resulted. Then he let go. The little corpse fell, colliding unpleasantly with tree branches in a tragic flop of soft white limbs and crashing through damp leaves, sending water droplets flying like jewels. "Anko-chan, I didn't expect you to come and ruin my fun so quickly. Did you miss your sensei?"
Anko bared her teeth, determinedly not looking at the tiny body crumpled and awkwardly hanging in the thick underbrush below, swaying slightly from the force of the fall she had just barely arrived too late to prevent. "You evil fucker," she hissed right back. "Don't mock me! You left me like trash. But you're not getting away this time."

Amusement was in every sinuous line of his body. "Oh really," he purred, slipping on a pleasant smile like a mask.
"Yes." She settled the now-unconscious Uchiha boy in the crook of the tree so that he didn't fall, keeping both eyes on Orochimaru. He placidly let her. Unease prickled at the back of her neck- why hadn't he killed this one too? Where was the third kid?

"Did you see the present I gave Sasuke-kun?" the conversational tone made her jerk unpleasantly, feeling as if her skin was pulling and slipping off. 'No, no, no, not another, no no no'… "Don't be jealous, but it's much better than yours."

Her hand instantly clapped onto her seal, where it seemed as if her skin and the muscle and the bone they were on fire and how could she move or even breathe… She gritted her teeth through the pain and pushed it away, flinging a brace of kunai to break his concentration.

It didn't work, but the four man ANBU squad that burst through the treeline baring steel like teeth did distract him a bit… just as a little blonde head bounded into the clearing and took in the tableau.

"Kid!" She hollered. "Grab your teammate up here and get the fuck out, to the tower. Forget the exam."

Orochimaru frowned, dodging the first volley, ducking and weaving between two short swords, some bitch spitting lightning and almost right into the spray of senbon Anko flung. In a flash of movement she barely caught, one of the ANBU was sent jerking violently to collide with a tree trunk.

"What happened to the bastard?" The blonde boy pulled desperately at his teammate. "Wake up, asshole!" His voice broke. "You've gotta help me find Sakura-chan."

Anko flinched, shunshining away from the bright green snake that shot for her face. "Kid, ain't nobody that can help that little girl anymore. Get your friend the fuck out of here! Your sister will meet you. She's close."

"I can't leave her!" he shouted. She grimaced, glancing involuntarily down, down, down to where the little girl with the red dress had fallen. His eyes tracked hers and widened in comprehension, then disbelief.

There was no way to mistake that for unconsciousness.

She didn't have time to deal with his panic attack- no time to cope with his screams of pain that quickly turned to howls of rage. She made time to turn to check when red, red chakra that was sickeningly familiar and almost as traumatizing as that sickly green-black chakra that she had used to admire so much. Wide eyed, she took just one glance at the crouched figure shrouded in unnatural, shit-your-pants-scary demonic chakra.

"Oh ho ho ho. What's thissssss."

"None of your damn business," she barked, rejoining the fight with a fury. That fucker wasn't taking her seriously!

And then he was gone. No shunshin that she saw, no sprint, nothing. He was just gone.

"What the fuck," a confused tenor voice breathed from under a porcelain mask. "Orders, Mitarashi-san?"

She grunted, surveying the situation again. "Escort those two kids to the tower, right now. I'm going to find Hokage-sama."
Her earpiece flickered on. "What's going on, Anko? I can't sense Orochimaru."

She sighed, feeling the adrenaline flood out. Wearily, she put one hand to her head to turn her headset on. "He's gone. I have your brother. He'll be heading to the tower. If you know how, I'd contact that sensei of yours." Dark eyes flickered to the crumpled figure curled into the tree. "I think he's the best seal master in town." She snorted derisively. "Not saying much."
________________________________________

Aiko clenched her fist around her brother's still hand, back hurting from her leaning position over the hospital bed. They'd been forced to tranquilize him to keep him from wrecking the place up.

She felt numb.

Shouldn't she had been able to do something about this?

'No, no, no,' her mind insisted. 'I couldn't have predicted this. No one could have predicted this. And no one will ever know that I should have known, should have known.'

His little hand was warm in hers. She could feel his heart beat through her fingers.

'Sakura doesn't have a heartbeat,' something traitorous whispered. 'Cold, dead, in the forest. They'll get her in the morning, they said. No hurry, no hurry.'

The door opened and closed quietly. She didn't have to look up to know that her teacher was staring out the window, fingers probably still stained with ink from the emergency sealing he had just performed. She let Naruto's hand slip from her and walked over to wrap her arms around her sensei's waist, burying her face into his flak jacket. He didn't react.

Aiko breathed deeply, searching for something familiar in the warm scent. She knew he used the same weapon polish, but she couldn't pick the scent out at all. He just smelled warm and safe.

Slowly, reluctantly one trembling hand rested gently against her back. For a man of his caliber, the shaking was almost as telling as the fact that he reached for reassurance, no matter how minor.

They waited as the day fled into night, shadows chasing slowly over white sheets on hospital beds.

Sasuke woke up a few hours before Naruto did, just about when she had finally steeled herself to asking if anyone had talked to Sakura's parents ('and told them that she's dead in the leaves, one little leaf in a forest').

"Ugh." The groan caught both of their attention. Aiko untangled herself from the blanket on her shoulders and pushed aside the curtains around Sasuke's bed. He blinked up at her blearily, one hand attached to the base of his neck like a vise. "What happened," he rasped. "That man, in the forest. Who was he?"

"Orochimaru of the Sannin," Kakashi stated quietly, one dark eye intent on the waking boy's reactions. "He…"

"Sakura's dead," Aiko said abruptly. Too abruptly. There was no way to sugar coat that. It would be a waste of time to try. She fell back into the chair beside his bed, pulling her legs up to her chest. "Dead dead dead in the forest."

Her teacher gave her an alarmed look. 'No need,' she thought. 'I'm fine, I was never near him. Don't look at me don't look.'

The brunette pulled in a long, slow, pained breath. "I see." The words were quiet. "And… and Naruto?"

"He's in that bed," sensei pointed to the adjoining room. "He had to be sedated."

Aiko stared at her knees.

"How?" The word had the most emotion she had ever heard in Sasuke's voice before. It wasn't grief, but it was something.
"I wasn't there," sensei said quietly. "I don't know."

"She can't breathe." She said abruptly. "Not without a throat. They left her. We left her. Sensei, are we going to go back and get her?" She hadn't seen it happen, of course. The ANBU had been attempting to calm Naruto down when she arrived. If she had been looking, she would have seen Sasuke's face turn green.

"Aiko, why don't you lie down. I think Sasuke could use a cuddle." He didn't even glare at the man. Sensei patted her head. "I'm going to go talk to the Hokage.

"Okay." Blearily, she untucked her legs and climbed into the bed. Silently, her teammate slid over to give her room underneath the covers. "I'm not tired, you know."
"Hn." Sasuke rolled over to stare at the ceiling.

"I never liked her." He turned his head a little to look at her. She was staring at the place where the wall and ceiling met, eyes dull and almost impassive. "I thought she was annoying and that she didn't take her career seriously. But she was just a little girl." She licked dry lips, weighing the next words. "She was going to get better. She was going to realize that her job was important and she was going to do well. But now she won't. If I'd been better-"

"Shut up." Sasuke wearily closed his eyes, pushing back the strange pain on the juncture of his neck and shoulder that no one had explained yet. He'd thought that freak – Orochimaru, he would remember that name, he would kill that man too because Sasuke didn't care when someone was out of his league, he'd always been second best or worse and he'd never let that stop him before – Anyway, he'd thought that freak had bit him there. Was that really a dream, or did it happen? He didn't want to think about that. He didn't want to think about the man who had beat him around like an Academy brat with laughter on his tongue. And he didn't want to think that the man had killed Sakura.

Weak, pathetic, annoying Sakura. Annoying Sakura who had spent more time on her hair than her kunai. Sakura who had followed him around with stars in her eyes like he was someone worth looking up to. Sakura who had picked all those fights with the idiot for his sake even though he definitely didn't need the help. She'd been weak. Soft. Kind, when it suited her. Bright and innocent.

He pushed away the hurt with the ease of long practice, compartmentalizing the new pain with the old pain that belonged to the little boy in his mind who screamed, screamed, screamed 'why'. The girl beside him turned onto her side and tangled cold fingers into the front of his shirt. He let her. It was weakness, but even Sasuke could forgive a little weakness in the dark.
________________________________________

Kakashi stood in his shower, head bowed. He'd had to get out of that room. That made three out of three students that he would be referring to the mental health division for a short break. Apparently Aiko wasn't as ready for trauma as he'd thought.

'Am I cursed?' He slowly raised one shaking hand to look at it. 'How the hell did I manage to get another teammate killed? I wasn't even there.'

The drain turned into a whirlpool, sucking out all the liquid and the oxygen and leaving only steam for him to breathe. He didn't mind.

He had already been to a briefing- it wasn't his briefing, but the Hokage had let him linger while someone talked about broken records and a flood in the tower all the way down to the first floor and faceless Rain ninja and a group of Sound ninja that definitely hadn't been genin who had attacked and been killed by the ANBU that swept the forest to make sure everything was clear. They had extracted one unconscious group of students as well as one girl whose teammates were dead. She was in the hospital somewhere, probably scared and alone. He didn't care. He had enough to care about.

Someone had already been sent to retrieve his student's body and arrange it a little more respectfully in case her civilian parents wanted it. They would be contacted in the morning. No use in making them lose sleep.

'I put a twelve year old on the mission stone. That's a new low.'

The night had been a bad one, on all counts.

________________________________________
Karin Uzumaki stared out her hospital window with wide, red eyes. She'd never been in a room like this before. But then, Konoha was famous for the quality of their medicine, and an orphan like her wouldn't have merited the best her village had to offer anyway.

Her team was dead.

She tried out the thought, remembering the terror she had felt when she realized she was alone in that forest of horrible animals and acid traps, being herded along the river to enemies she could feel but not avoid. It was slightly worse than being in the forest with her teammates, who at least couldn't kill her until the task was over.

If she wasn't so unsure about what was going to happen to her now, she'd be happy she had escaped her teammates. But they were going to kill her if she dared return without them. She had been the mere filler meant to allow the real nin to take the exam in sissy Konoha that would only accept full teams.

One slim hand pressed to her stomach to quiet the rumbling within. She'd been hustled in quickly and efficiently, treated with a pretty glowing hand technique that sealed up all her hurts and erased the splinter break in her shin bone… until they got to the paperwork and found out her name. Karin had no idea why the nurse had been so skeptical, but she had abruptly left the room and started a conversation with someone Karin couldn't see.

"May I come in, Uzumaki-san?"

She jumped a little, and gave the door a suspicious look. "O-of course."

The hand that opened the door was wrinkled, aged, and attached to a face that even she knew. Her face burnt. "H-Hokage-san!" The title was insufficient, but she couldn't refer to a foreign nin as 'sama'. They would skin her alive back home in grass.
The fact that she had been brought in by Orochimaru-sama himself wouldn't matter—he was far too busy to pay much attention to a genin he'd rescued years ago. The old man didn't seem to mind the mild disrespect. He merely smiled at her.
"Forgive me, but when I heard we had an Uzumaki in the hospital, I had to see. The family resemblance is undeniable, young lady."

"W-what?"

"You didn't know?" He indicated for her to follow. "You have the Uzumaki look about you, especially your hair. I think you look even more Uzu than the Uzumaki we have in Konoha."

Her heart stopped. "My family is from Konoha?" She knew nothing about her family. She'd always been a foreigner and an orphan- twice cursed.

"Not originally, no. But Konoha has a long history with the Uzumaki. The wife of one of our founding fathers was an Uzumaki, as well as the late Kushina-chan, who you might know as the Bloody Habanero."

Karin shook her head slowly. "I don't know who that it."

"She very nearly became the fourth Hokage."

Red eyes went wide. Her family sounded kind of awesome. Her family. That was a new phrase.

"Forgive an old man his rambling. Tell me, would you accompany me for a late dinner? I'm afraid I was working late."
________________________________________

Ino eyed the other blonde kunoichi with distaste. There was just no excuse for hair like that- it looked like straw. The Suna nin gave a smirk in return.

"Ino, if you're done asserting your dominance, they're going to start talking soon." She rolled her eyes at her grumpy teammate.

"Don't be ridiculous, Shikamaru. Not everyone is here yet. We couldn't possibly have beat Sasuke-kun's team in, even if he is slowed down by Forehead girl and Naruto." She raised up onto her toes, scanning the crowd for that shock of black hair.
The tall boy standing by the kunoichi she'd been glaring at gave a snicker. "It's funny when we know more than the natives," he drawled. "You mean the team with the irritatingly loud blonde, right? Don't you know? That team is disqualified."

Ino reddened. "W-what? You take that back! No way."

Teal eyes flashed with amusement, and she heard the other girl's voice for the first time. "Kankuro, play nice. I'm sure she knows what she's talking about." She jerked her head. "Let's go." With a scuff of sandals, the two followed their red-headed teammate to the room where the genin were gathering to hear results.

Chouji shrugged. "It's possible," he offered, caught between being the voice of reason and the peacekeeper. "Naruto could have peeked at a scroll or something. That wouldn't be Sasuke's fault at all."

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "Troublesome. Who cares?" He shuffled off, quickly followed by her other male teammate. Ino gave one last look around the room and gave up her search as a bad job. 'I'm sure I'll see him soon.'

But team 7 was nowhere to be seen. They sidled up next to their year mates uneasily. Hinata seemed worried too: she had actually activated her Byakugan to search.

"There's only one Konoha team missing," she whispered. "I don't see them anywhere."

Konoha had done very well in the second task—other teams had apparently been overwhelmed by the native flora and fauna.
A cough. "Unfortunately, there are too many teams. We are going to have to have an elimination round."

Ino cursed, bouncing up onto Shikamaru's shoulders so that she could see what was going on. The speaker looked like he was about to fall over from a wasting disease. She wrinkled her nose distastefully.

'Getting through this exam was tough enough. I don't think my team is ready to fight again already.'

They'd nearly gotten their butts handed to them by that Rain team using genjutsu… Shikamaru had spotted it, but it was still close. They had been desperate- it had been the last day and they hadn't so much as seen another team… Aside from the incident where they hid in the bushes and watched that Suna kunoichi's teammate crush an entire grass team alive. She shuddered a little.

'Four Konoha teams, the Sand team, and one Rain… Unless Konoha loses all our fights, we'll be dominating the Finals.' She gave a slightly feral grin. 'That makes 9 matches…'

And as if by divine providence, her match was first. She strutted into the ring… and then deflated at the sight of her opponent. 'He looks so weird!' She didn't have a problem with the color green, exactly, but this fellow leaf nin apparently had terrible taste in everything. 'He desperately needs my help. I hope he fights better than he dresses.'

The boy she was to fight slid into a serious position, left hand upraised and just a hint of a blush across his cheeks. "I am honored by this fight, Yamanaka-san!"

She sighed. 'He's not great at trash talk, either.' "Let's go already!"

Ino was the best kunoichi of her class. She had always been praised for her aggression, creative taijutsu (honed by practice against a real genin for two whole years) and comparative body strength.

But this kid gently, smoothly deflected or flowed around everything she threw at him. She caught a glimpse of one of the Rain nin looking nervous about the quality of genin that Konoha produced. She was starting to feel pretty nervous, too. If she were Shikamaru, this would be where she came up with a clever plan, or used weaponry or something. But she wasn't the planner, and her taijutsu was the strongest non-lethal tool she had. She didn't want to actually hurt a fellow leaf-nin with kunai.

Ino forced herself a little faster, burning desperately to get at least one hit in. The world was a blur around her. She was more insulted than anything that her opponent was clearly avoiding actually fighting her- at the speed he moved, he could have ended the fight already if he actually tried to hit her.

As if he heard her, Rock (and was a silly name, thought the girl named Pig) flew forward in a whirlwind of limbs. "You fought well, Yamanaka-san, but now it is my turn. Konoha Senpu!"

The next thing she knew was waking up groggily to the sight of her teacher. "Did anyone catch the wagon that ran me over?" She sat up, swaying slightly.

"No, but you missed two fights." The scent of salty bbq floated through the air. "You know the guy who beat you? His female teammate beat Kiba, and then that blonde Suna nin you were growling at beat their last teammate."

"Ha, at least one of his teammates bit it," she muttered bitterly. "Who is next?"

"The tallest Suna nin and one of the Leaf genin from the oldest team. Yoroi or something."

The Suna nin won, thoroughly confusing the genin who screeched something about his chakra stealing abilities failing. By the time the next match was announced she could sit up unassisted, which was good because Shikamaru was fighting one of the three Rain nin. He drew the match out for absolutely forever, but eventually won.

"Go Hinata!" Kiba yelled raucously, somehow seeming unaffected by his recent ass-kicking. "He's the shortest kid here!"
Ino winced when she saw the match-up… Hinata was facing that red-headed boy who she had seen gleefully kill an entire team. "I don't like this," she muttered. Asuma gave her an indulgent smile.

"Have more faith in your fellow leaf nin. I'm sure the Hyuuga girl is strong."

Ino rolled her eyes. "Hinata is pretty good, but that guy…" she shuddered. "He killed an entire team in the forest and laughed."
Her teacher scratched his head. "I'm sure she'll be fine. If it looks bad, I'll jump in, okay?"

It did get bad, and she was glad he made that promise. When the mediator tried to stop the match, she shoved at her teacher. Just in time, he grabbed up Hinata and pulled her away from the floating cloud of sand creeping up her arms. The screams were horrible.

Beside Ino, even Shikamaru was pale. "Her hands…" They were a bloody, mangled mess. Mutters of discontent fluttered throughout the small crowd. It looked like she was never going to be able to write again, much less fight. A laugh went up from the tallest Suna nin, the creep in all the facepaint.

The next matches were pretty subdued—Shino drained all of Chouji's chakra and won, a rain nin beat the silver-haired Konoha nin with glasses, and the last Rain nin won her match against the last team mate from the oldest Konoha team.

"Well, I guess that's it.." Ino went to get up, but was stopped by her teacher.

"Hold on." He didn't seem to notice he still had Hinata's blood on his sleeves. "They're going to announce the match-ups ahead of time. We should hear Shikamaru's before we go."

Shikamaru groaned after the first round was announced. "I'm the first match?"

Ino elbowed him. "At least you get to beat up that jackass who laughed at Hinata." She glared across the room. "And you had better!" She scoffed. "I'm already mad that I'm going to have to cheer for the weirdo who beat me. I hate that Sand girl more."
"I wouldn't want to be that panda girl," Chouji muttered.

Ino shuddered. "Agreed. And having to wait til the last round? Talk about pressure."

The girl in question merely looked determined to fight the redhead. Ino would have given up. No point in dying in some stupid competition.

________________________________________
"Haruno-san? May I come in? I need to have a talk with you about your daughter."

Chapter Text

Asuma barely noticed when his female genin grabbed the boy who'd beat her by the collar and started scolding him – something about how she couldn't be seen in public after having been defeated by someone with eyebrows like that and she was going to drag him directly to the salon because he had to avenge Hinata in the finals and she didn't want her Sand-y rivals to think Konoha nin didn't know how to dress – Okay, so he noticed more than a little. That was part of being an elite ninja.
One of the other things he had noticed was that Kakashi's team was missing and no one seemed to know why. That detail was strange.

His team had been slated for success, after all. He had the top genin, the jinchuuriki, and a prissy little civilian girl (just so that it wasn't too easy to mold them into unstoppable killing machines, presumably). Besides that, he had a ready-made teaching assistant who couldn't tell him to fuck off, so there was really no reason that his team couldn't have been ready for this test, even if he couldn't be arsed to teach.

He wasn't going to be the one to break it to his genin until he knew for sure, but everyone above chuunin level and their freaking dog now knew that Orochimaru had been spotted in the forest of death… there were only so many reasons a man of his caliber might be interested in genin.

Since both Hyuuga in the crowd had showed up with all eyes present and intact (there had practically been a palpable sense of jounin counting eyeballs), as well as every other clan heir entered… well. Either the interest was in someone from one of the other villages (unlikely, a man like Orochimaru would have easily snatched them off the road and had a grudge against Konoha besides) or he had been looking for the red-eyed shit or the jinchuuriki.

A plan for his lone student in the finals in place and the others scheduled to meet for training tomorrow anyways, he made his way across town using the rooftops. He'd never given two shits about protocol, so Sarutobi didn't even bother to scold him for using the window.

"How nice to see you. Did you come to talk about something?" The old man didn't look up from his papers.

He didn't mince words. "What happened with that alert last night? Did Orochimaru get caught? And was Kakashi's team involved?"

His father sighed, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. "You know I can't gossip, Asuma. But as for your other question, we have not taken Orochimaru into custody. Hence why the alert is still active."

Asuma didn't bother to say goodbye, shunshin-ing to Kakashi's apartment. Ninja were nosy. It was part of the job description. He was of the opinion that you could never have too much information on a situation when the situation was that an S-class lunatic with a history of abducting clan members was in your village, even if you didn't have a team of three ankle-biter clan heirs to keep track of.

Hatake wasn't home, but apparently Gai had come to the same idea. The two men exchanged glances.

"My rival has not been seen since yesterday."

Asuma grunted. "The old man wouldn't talk about him or his team, so I'm pretty sure they got caught up with whatever happened in the forest yesterday."

Gai hmmd. "The hospital, then? We can see if he or, more likely, any of his youthful students have been checked in."

The thin-faced woman at the front desk didn't know anything about Kakashi, was tight-lipped about the Uchiha brat, but couldn't keep from scowling when asked if the jinchuuriki was in the hospital. Thoroughly tired of her shit, Asuma sauntered past, ready to search room by room. He headed to the second wing first- general admissions for mission sustained trauma. Gai caught up him, looking unduly guilty about slipping past the cranky civilian, but too worried for his friend to let the opportunity pass.

Asuma didn't really give two shits about Hatake himself- he was a comrade, yes, one he would fight and die for if it was required but otherwise didn't know, but he was more interested in what information the guy probably had. Gai, on the other hand, was probably Hatake's only real friend. They were both cripplingly awkward (as geniuses tend to be, Asuma had thought once) in completely opposite ways but they managed to patch together a friendship out of an endless competition over nothing. It was cute, in a way that was also setting new criteria for causing debilitating depression.

That in mind, he kept his mouth shut until they found a room with 'Uzumaki' on the paper outside the door. The blonde wasn't in his bed, but a quick check of the bed in the attached section behind the curtain revealed three out of Kakashi's four puppies cuddled up in bed, asleep.

Until they walked in, that was. The little redhead's eyes flipped open and she gave them both a dark look. If she hadn't been trapped under boy limbs, the chit might have gotten up. "What do you want?"

"How hip!" Gai somehow boomed in a hospital appropriate volume that still made Asuma cringe and the black-haired boy in the bed grumble in his drug-induced sleep, calming when his female teammate set a hand on his back.

"We're looking for Kakashi." No point in beating around the bush. It looked like Orochimaru hadn't had Uchiha or jinchuuriki on the menu after all- they were both breathing and in Konoha, so that was good. Worries assuaged, Asuma raised a hand in farewell. "Tell him we stopped by, hmm?" He left a few leaves flittering to the ground when he transported out.

Gai stayed, on the other hand. "Do you know where my most youthful rival can be found?" His dark eyes were uncharacteristically serious.

The girl bit her lower lip, which crackled with dried blood. "Wherever he goes when he needs to self-flagellate, I suppose. No doubt he's convinced himself that it's his fault an S-class criminal infiltrated an exam that his students were otherwise prepared for."
Gai frowned. "I had heard of this most cowardly deed, but not why."

A tiny thumb pointed at the sleeping brunette. "He put some sort of seal on Sasuke's neck through a hickey of death, tried to feed Naruto to a snake, and ri- (a quick breath) – killed Sakura. I think he just rolled into town to fuck over team 7, basically."
The jounin winced, both at the bad news and the cavalier way the girl tried to deliver it. Someone less familiar with the evasive tactics his rival employed whenever emotions reared their ugly head might have thought the girl was cold. He knew better. His rival had apparently managed to teach the girl more than just jutsu. It was a shame.

"I am sorry to hear that." He maintained a low, solemn tone. "I will deliver one hundred flowers to her home." He left off a condition for failing.

"Actually, that's a lovely idea," the girl said quietly. "Could I help? I think I like the idea of planting living flowers for her better, though. A little less ephemeral." He winced. Good point.

"Of course. Thank you for sharing this information, Aiko-chan. I will continue my search for my eternal rival."

"Did you check the stone?"

He shook his head. "Not yet. I had thought that he might still be caught up in current events. Goodbye."

Aiko yawned into the room where she was now the only person awake. 'Gai-san is very polite, isn't he? I wonder why we've never been properly introduced. He knew who I was.'

With a night's worth of sleep and several conscious hours to process information, she was feeling much more like herself. It took her a while to delicately untangle herself from the pile of sleeping boys but she managed, quirking a tiny smile at how they murmured and readjusted to cuddle each other once she was out of the bed. She didn't know when Naruto had crawled in, but all three of them had probably needed the human contact. That didn't mean that the boys wouldn't be horrified to wake up without her as a barrier from each other's cooties, of course.

She took a moment to hope that a nurse caught them so someone else could see how adorable they were, and another to hope that Kakashi had forgotten her little panic attack last night. It had been a stupid reaction. She didn't even like Sakura, after all, and her death had not been Aiko's fault.

The redhead physically bit the tip of her tongue to keep from savaging her lip any further. In lieu of thinking, she sauntered out of the room and down the immaculate, empty hallway.

'The terminology isn't exactly right, but is the 'plot' fucked over without Sakura? Was she really so important?' The hospital passed in a blur and became a damp, chill morning. She absently noticed that she had forgotten to put on her boots. 'I might have to take her place. Or am I thinking about this in the wrong way. Clearly, I can't assume things will turn out like the manga. My knowledge is useless, except as information about people's personalities and motives… even that can be subject to change.'
Aiko grimaced.

'Fuck. This is all so messed up.'

________________________________________

As it turned out, her sensei did not conveniently forget about her panic attack. She was scheduled for a meeting with a combat psych specialist. It was an irritating waste of time and Aiko bluffed her way through it, being at least sane enough to know the right answers even if they weren't honest ones. Yes, she was grieving. It had been a shock. No, Haruno-san had not been a particularly close friend, but it had been the first time she had seen a dead comrade. She was anxious to serve her village.
And so on.

It must have gone well enough, because she didn't get forced back for another one, unlike both of the boys. They were both years overdue for mental assessments, if she were to be honest.

She hadn't seen her sensei since he'd left the hospital less than 24 hours ago, but she had been cleared to return to training and the active lists after her evaluation. With her teammates still waiting to be cleared and her teacher missing, Aiko was working alone in training ground seven when Ino trotted up, dragging Rock Lee of all the people. She eyed the odd couple warily- Ino seemed pleased with herself and as if she was plotting, but that was normal. The boy behind her appeared to be missing half his eyebrows and had the vaguely concussed look she associated with people who had recently been subjected to the full force of Ino's personality for the first time.

'They seem like two people who would conflict. An unstoppable force and an immovable object, really.'

"Hello Ino, Rock-san." She gave them half her attention, working on her aim flipping kunai behind her into her blind spot.

"We're looking for Forehead Girl," Ino brusquely interrupted. Aiko winced. The other girl frowned, an expression Aiko could hear in her voice. "What's that weird look for?"

Aiko ran a hand through her hair, feeling stressed and not wanting to be the one to share the news. Why wouldn't someone have told the girl's yearmates already? It had been almost two days since …

'Nothing for it, I suppose.'

"I thought everyone knew. Sakura's dead."

Lee swallowed, hard. His jaw worked soundlessly.

"That's not funny, Aiko." Ino's expression was blank, but her eyes seemed to be pleading Aiko to claim it was all just a bad joke.
She shook her head at the pale-faced genin in front of her. "No, it isn't. The boys are still in the hospital. They ran into… Well. Someone way out of our league took the test as an opportunity to get to Sasuke." Wordlessly, she turned back to slamming kunai into her target. When she next checked, she was alone again.

________________________________________

Wherever he was hiding, Kakashi was doing a damn good job of it. No one seemed to know where he was. Aiko had apparently been elected to be the deliverer of bad news for all of fucking Konoha, so when no one else would clue Sasuke in she told him what she knew of his curse mark.

His reaction made her think that he might not be leaving Konoha, or at least not for Orochimaru. Sasuke had scowled, digging his short nails into the mark as if he wanted to scratch the skin off. If this was the same curse mark depicted in her foreknowledge, then they might have changed things by getting the seal over it before it had a chance to totally flood his chakra system overnight. So far, he hadn't activated it.

Naruto had been creepily quiet ever since he woke up, clinging to both Aiko and a reluctant Sasuke (who had apparently gotten out all of the feelings in one go and would no longer tolerate them).

She desperately wanted an adult to come in and take care of things. It was a strange impulse, considering that she was an adult in more than one way.

No one did, though. In fact, the day of Sakura's funeral (a closed affair the Haruno parents had absolutely forbid any ninja from attending) she was called to the Sandaime's office and introduced to a distant cousin, a red-eyed girl who would apparently be staying with her and Naruto for the foreseeable future.

Seeing Karin was a bit of a shock. It was hard to imagine that anything she had done would change the world this much—Karin had certainly never defected to Konoha in the anime. It certainly clinched her belief that her foreknowledge was effectively useless.

"I don't want her here," Naruto scowled as soon as he had gotten away from their new housemate, sounding very much unlike himself. "We don't need anyone else."

With a sigh, Aiko pulled her brother into a one-armed hug in their bedroom while the older girl bedded down for the night on the couch. "Naruto, I know you're hurting right now and it's not good timing, but we're all the family she's ever known. You wouldn't leave her all alone, would you? Imagine if I'd never had you. That's what it's always been like for her."

Her otouto sighed, hanging his head. "It just… it feels like she's trying to replace Sakura-chan."

Karin was alright- surprisingly intelligent and not nearly as whiny as Aiko would have predicted. She was strangely shy, though. The girl sleeping on the futon in her front room was a year older than her, and remarkably underskilled for someone who had attended an international chuunin exam. Naruto wanted nothing to do with her, possibly seeing her as some sort of Sakura replacement.

Aiko was more practical about it, however. She knew that Karin actually had a fair bit of potential, despite her current weakness- the Uzumaki stamina and totally unparalled sensing abilities could help Konoha out in the future. That in mind, she spent a fair bit of time training with the girl. This served double purposes—Karin was more than eager to explore a familial connection and was obviously a lonely little girl. She had only spent two nights with the twins before the Hokage called Aiko to check in.
"Tell me, Aiko-chan. How is Karin-chan adjusting to life in Konoha?"

Aiko kept a stiff back, knowing that this was an unofficial mission report of sorts. There was probably a good reason the girl had been put under direct supervision of an active duty nin, after all. "She seems emotionally invested in obtaining a relationship with myself and to a lesser extent, Naruto. I think that she can feel the Kyuubi through her sensing abilities and that it frightens her, but she has yet to comment. Karin appears to have little loyalty to Grass itself, but that does not mean she doesn't have a loyalty to someone from Grass. My assessment is that we can put a reasonable amount of trust in her at this moment, but that it would be unwise to give her access to sensitive information or increase her combat ability drastically."

"Hmm." Sarutobi eyed her harshly, and then gave a sigh. "Continue monitoring her. I want both of you to report to training field 1 tomorrow. She will be inducted into our force as a genin if she passes an assessment, and will report to the hospital for basic training as a field medic after psych evaluation by a Yamanaka. She will still be under your supervision." He scrawled a signature on a paper, and then handed it to her. "Bring that tomorrow. Dismissed."

Karin easily passed the assessment and gave her new headband on the standard blue a long, strange look before she tied it around her forehead. Aiko companionably nudged the other girl with a shoulder. "Doesn't she look nice with that, Iruka-sensei?"
The chuunin smiled, marking the last of his evaluation and signing it. "Karin-chan looks very nice indeed. I'm almost sorry I can't claim you were one of my students. I would be proud of any student with mastery over such a unique technique. You'll be a credit to Konoha, Karin-chan."

Aiko tried not to snigger at just how red the other girl went. 'Puppy crush? Iruka-sensei is pretty damn cute, if he's never yelled at you.'

"T-thank you," she squeaked, fiddling with her brown glasses. "What now, Iruka-san?"

He scanned his files. "Well, it looks like the Hokage seems to think you'll do well as a field medic to complement your existing abilities as a support specialist. You report for introductory training tomorrow afternoon at the lower level of the hospital. If you do well in that class, you will be assigned a mentor." He paused for a moment. "I would suggest that you remember to work on your combat skillset as well," he sheepishly cautioned. "There's a bit of a tendency to let those skills stagnate when a medic starts training."

"Don't worry," Aiko chimed in, easily faking a light hearted attitude. "I won't let her get russsssty."

Indignant, Karin jabbed an elbow into her gut when Iruka was looking away. "Thank you again!" She bowed, allowing her short red hair to flip over her face in a move that sent a light cloud of perfumed air floating. Aiko twitched.

'She's wearing way too much perfume for a ninja.'

Aiko tucked her hands into the pockets of her long tunic. "We need to look into getting a new place," she remarked. "A one bedroom apartment isn't going to cut it for three teenagers."

Karin gave a tentative smile, one hand skimming over the cool metal of her protector. "Sounds fine to me. I've never had my own place before."

The place they ended up finding the very next day (a good ninja doesn't waste time, Karin reminded Naruto when he sulked) was an actual house on the outskirts of town almost to the great walls, not another apartment. It was traditionally styled and had a lot of floor space that was easily converted into a four bedroom home with a kitchen, sitting room and lounge. Aiko had to grimace at the damage the house payment did to her nest egg—despite thinking she had a ton of money saved, there wasn't enough to take care of all the expenses she wanted. She was the only one with a significant amount of saved money- Karin had essentially nothing, and Naruto had only ever worked D-class missions and the one fluke A class. They moved over the crappy old furniture with Sasuke's reluctant help, with the plan of replacing it for nicer furnishings when they could.

She hadn't seen any of her usual associates since the disaster of the second exam—Kakashi had apparently slunk back onto the ANBU rolls without a word, Anko had taken some long-term mission out of the village, and Ino was nowhere to be found.
Gai kept his word from the hospital, however, and three days after the funeral he showed up toting Lee and an enormous assortment of seedlings for a garden. Sakura's parents refused to have it on their property—they blamed the ninja for getting their daughter killed and actually declared that they planned to move out of Konoha, taking their business with them. Iwa would probably welcome them with open arms.

They made the entire front yard of the new Uzumaki home into Sakura's garden, mostly because there was nowhere else to put it. Naruto must have talked to Ino because she showed up in ratty old gardening clothes that somehow still looked designer and directed the layout with a slightly subdued but still bossy mien. Sasuke slouched up about a minute before they started and deigned to help by digging.

The project was cathartic, even though they were a motley crew. Karin had fussed around, not quite comfortable where she knew she was an outsider. Ino had a long history of adopting lost little ducklings, however, and she pulled the other girl in with a good facsimile of her usual flippant grace.

It was then that Aiko learned that Ino had accidentally adopted Lee, too. She wasn't sure if she was amused or horrified when it came out that after Lee had totally outclassed her at the chuunin exams, Ino had proposed that if he would train with her she would help him be fashionable and then taken his reflexive thumbs-up as agreement before he'd had a chance to explain that he loved his jumpsuit and bowlcut.

Ino was probably regretting that deal- she looked exhausted and couldn't move without cringing. Lee looked about the same. The unstoppable force of Ino's personality had been at least temporarily stymied by Lee's immovable conviction of youth.
She was probably going to regret having a permanent memorial to someone she hadn't particularly liked but had inadvertently killed in her front yard, but at least it was beautiful.

________________________________________
"Hokage-sama, I need a mission. I haven't run one in months and I'm supporting a household of three… one of which you dumped on me," she added, tone slipping from its respectful beginning to a slightly resentful address.

The ANBU standing in the doorway gave a glare she could practically feel through his cat shaped mask and the back of her shirt, but the Sandaime only nodded. "That's fine, Aiko-chan. I'm sure I can find something. But as you say, Karin-chan is in your care. How do you propose to do that while out of the village?"

She frowned. "Unless you want me to retire, I can't always be with her anyways. Not if she's going to be reporting to the hospital daily. Otherwise I would take her with me."

"I think a short field mission under your command with Sasuke and Naruto-kun would not harm her progress overmuch," he commented lightly. "and increase the household income." Wrinkles formed in his forehead as he frowned. His next thought was mused to himself more than shared for her to comment on. "Then again, it seems risky to take the Uchiha out of the village without at least a jounin to ensure his safety when we know he is being hunted." He gave a long sigh. "On second thought, that mission is out. I will send a directive to the hospital ensuring that Karin-chan gets onto the payroll starting tomorrow. She can help out around as part of her internship. Naruto…" He smiled fondly. "I think he would appreciate training more than the safe, in village missions. With Kakashi-kun preoccupied, I think I will have him and Uchiha-kun report to Asuma for team training temporarily, so they do not lack guidance."

She shifted her stance slightly, the only indication that she was anxious for the conclusion of his long train of thought. It was good that he had addressed everyone else who mattered, but she really just wanted to know about her next mission.
"Wait a moment."

The old man shuffled through his files, mumbling "no, not that one, no, no…" and flipping through pile after pile of the far too abundant paperwork. "I have a two-man chuunin team you can be temporarily reassigned to, heading to one of the outlier villages to investigate complaints of missing nin in the area. Supposedly they've been running roughshod."

________________________________________

ANBU dog (and he was dog now, it hurt too much to be Hatake Kakashi) led his small pack through Rice Country in search of the target. This mission -delivering a single message to an ally- was a bit of a joke, but speed was critical.

The only person who could help his kid with that seal was currently drinking and whoring his way on a never-ending circuit through the Elemental Nations in search of information and something that dulled the ache of years of failure. Dog could sympathize, though he self-medicated that pain differently.

The man in question was found balls-deep in a petite redhead with long, silver fingernails and matching paint over her closed eyelids. From the door, Dog idly watched those nails trace delicate red lines down the Toad Sage's back and wondered when the man would be done. He was an older man, after all. Another few minutes at most.

The couple didn't react to his silent entry, but the older man almost certainly sensed his presence. Dog didn't leave, knowing damn well that if he turned away there was a good chance Jiraiya would slip away instead of accepting the summons to Konoha. If he didn't get the orders then he could hardly be considered in defiance of them, after all.

After the whore had tied shut her pink yukata, she gave both the men a plastic, businesslike smile and left the room. She was professional… He had almost expected her to be surprised when she noticed him.

Whores and ninja had a lot more in common than conventional thought held. Her job was probably harder—she couldn't wear a literal mask to hide her distaste. He cheated, as did his little kohai.

He moaned and groaned and tried to coax Dog and his two subordinates into going out for drinks (especially the curvy one), but Jiraiya eventually sulkily gave in and read the missive… and then gave Dog a genuinely sympathetic look. "Lost your first student, eh?" He clapped Dog on the back with enough force to make even a grown man who happened to be an elite jounin fault forward. "You're fooling yourself, you need a drink far more than I".

ANBU kitty cat (he hated that name, but Dog's first kohai really was more of a kitty cat than a cat) shifted uncomfortably in a way that implied he hadn't known what the Toad Sage just shared. Their third member, ANBU gecko didn't so much as twitch. She'd always been good. Or maybe she was just too high to care. As long as she did her job, Dog would not investigate whether or not his subordinates were self medicating. Most ANBU did after a few months in the force.

"Fine, don't reply. See if you ever get a signed copy of anything again."

If he had been being Kakashi and not Dog, that might have pained him. It would later when he was a man again. Dog didn't read really excellent novels of high romance, great adventures, clever protagonists and heroines who were self-sufficient but obligingly helpless in the face of things like spiders and Mist nin (about the same threat level in the novel's context, a jab that had nearly started a war) so that the clever protagonist could be rewarded with…

He ducked his chin slightly so that his cool porcelain mask pressed down on his nose, keeping blood from escaping and signaled his team that it was time to go.

Kami help him, those kids would probably be better off if they never saw him again, but he still wanted to get back and make sure he hadn't totally failed Minato sensei and Obito (and what kind of person was he, that if he'd had to choose from his four students, he might have made the choice Orochimaru made for him?)

Speaking of students, his second kohai was going to be absolutely furious with him. She was unhealthily dependant on him, a fact that he was hyper aware of and made uncomfortable by.

They would be better off without him. It was time for them to find new sensei, sensei who wouldn't get them killed. Naruto was his father's shade in walking, talking, vivid color and Jiraiya was a sentimental man. Getting him a teacher would be no trouble. And he knew plenty of other jounin whose lives he had saved at some point or other. Surely one or two of them could take on an exceptionally talented student.

________________________________________

Omake from Timeskip

"I can't believe you're leaving me here," Aiko all but wailed to her sensei. "I want to go with you."

"Toughen up," he replied, idly examining the exit points of their cheap hotel room in a backwater village located conveniently close to Cloud. She would have sworn that she saw his lips curl up into a smile under his mask at that moment, but she was too busy moping to tease him for it.

"Isn't it your job to nurture me and turn me into a beautiful flower of Konoha?" she half-seriously demanded, referencing Gai's philosophy in an attempt to really lay down the guilt. "How are you going to nurture me if you leave me here to take care of your super secret secondary mission?"

He hmmed. "Is that why all my plants die?"

The look she gave in response to that was aghast.

"Orders, Aiko. I'll be back in a few hours. Trap the hotel room and stay up until I return. If you get kidnapped by big scary civilian thugs, try to leave a trail of candy for me to follow." He flickered away before she could reply, leaving his student choking on chakra smoke.

Her eyes narrowed. "Fine."

Her first plan was to trap the room so thoroughly that he would be caught in them when he returned. She quickly discarded that stupid plan because even if he wandered in with his eyes closed and a concussion, bleeding from his ears and temporarily deafened, she only calculated she had at best a 6% chance of getting him. The odds that he would fall into a harmless trap to humor her were slightly better, but she didn't want his pity.

Instead, she stripped both beds and called down to the front desk with an entire list of demands. She phrased it much more cutely than that.

A little while later inside her recently constructed pillow fort, she carefully arranged the bounty of candy and baked goods she had taken from an amused maid, tucking a cold can of soda between her knees so she didn't knock it over.

Only then did she trap the room, using such a diverse set of materials as senbon, wire, the tv guide, and a bottle of hairspray primed to spray into someone's face, preferably the eyes. She killed time reading through the book she had brought—it turned out that henging into a rather nondescript older man made it easy to purchase the forbidden Icha Icha series.

She had instead chosen to henge into the Hokage and worn a comically bad disguise. Because fuck that guy.

The plot really wasn't half bad, although Anko had definitely been right… Jiraiya was a bit of a sissy romantic. She didn't skip those parts, though. They were often relevant to the plot. Aiko had just learned that the blue-haired hottie with the killer abs was in fact an ANBU from an unnamed village in water country suffering from amnesia when a familiar chakra signature pulsed politely outside the door, as if asking her to disarm anything lethal. Aiko hurriedly marked her place and tucked the novel into her knapsack, hiding it by tucking it under her panties. No way would sensei look under those, even if he did suspect she had contraband.

When her sensei's masked face poked through the door after his mysterious five hours excursion lightly splattered with someone else's blood, she was gratified to see genuine confusion in his one visible eye. "We're having a sleepover," Aiko informed, as if that explained everything. He had probably never seen such an impressive pillow fort. Perhaps he even thought it was overkill to use both mattresses and every piece of bedding, but if she hadn't then he would have just gone to sleep and ignored her.

He just stared.

She summoned up big, teary eyes from her reserves. He wouldn't be fooled, but sensei appreciated the effort she put into emotional manipulation and usually rewarded the attempts. Her lower lip extended just a bit, and she 'unintentionally' curled her legs in and pointed her toes together like a silly baby bird, hugged her cupcake to her chest and channeled as much cuteness as possible.

"Right."

The door to the bathroom slammed behind him and the shower started up only a few minutes later. Humming, Aiko peeled a row of chocolates in preparation for his return and crawled out just enough to turn on a movie about a young witch moving to a big city with her snarky cat.

Chapter Text

In the week before the tournament of the Chuunin exam, Aiko felt the old worry overwhelming her again. Naruto had finally settled down and stopped sniping at Karin and both boys had been calmed by a combination of therapy and mind-numbing workouts that left them too tired to dwell on much. The other redhead had slipped into Konoha like she had always been there—fighting tooth and nail with Ino over who looked better in purple, becoming Aiko's ally against Naruto's bad moods, and developing shocking proficiency in her work at the hospital. Aiko was starting to get royally pissed at her sensei, however. He hadn't so much as shown his face in almost three weeks.

She didn't feel like she had enough allies for what was about to happen (if it did happen). It didn't seem that she could have changed anything big enough to make Orochimaru abandon the invasion plan, but then it hadn't seemed like she could have possibly influenced him to kill Sakura just by getting Anko to the group slightly faster.

All she could do was polish her kunai, restock her poisons (she had added one to coat the tips of her senbon) and tie her headband on in the morning, staring at her face in the mirror. The girl looking back at her looked calm and self-assured, red hair curling rather riotously around her face (she'd slept with it wet). It seemed strange to her, not for the first time, that she was one of the tallest in her age group when her brother was the shortest. The gap between them seemed very real when she could tease him by tucking her chin over his head when they hugged.

But it was very possible that he was the only person who could save Konoha from Gaara.

"What a joke," she muttered bitterly, tearing her eyes away from her reflection and brushing her teeth before she went to wake up her housemates. Karin had a shift at the hospital, but Naruto would be going to watch the tournament with her. The boys had been remarkably… well, not bitter at all about not getting to participate in the tournament. Doubtlessly that would have been very different if the reason wasn't that Sakura hadn't made it through the forest. They probably would have split apart as a team if Sasuke thought that he had one of them to blame for ruining his chances at advancement.
'Dying was probably the best thing she ever did for team spirit.'

The stadium was packed- and why the hell did a ninja village have a building like this, anyways? Sasuke seemed equally uncomfortable with the crowded space.

The opening match was surprisingly exciting, considering that Shikamaru was in it. Quite possibly on threat of bodily harm from Ino, he methodically humiliated Kankuro with careless ease. The constant name-calling and heckling from the audience seemed to put the puppeteer off his game, as well as the fact that Shikamaru slapped said puppet with exploding tags on the very first hit and let the explosion of splinters that resulted speak for itself. Deprived of his primary weapon, he almost certainly would have lost even if Ino wasn't gunning for his blood.

Konoha continued to overwhelm—in the next round Shino casually drained the kunoichi from Rain with an insect planted before the match even began and left her in a limp pile on the floor, before she even had a chance to employ a single jutsu. The match was as quick as it was silent.

The next round was one of the ones that she had been nervous about… Lee was very good, and didn't have a particular disadvantage in the match up. Still, Temari was highly skilled as well and vicious besides. She managed to keep him at bay with swirling winds likely perfected just for this match- seeing his speed and strength in the preliminaries would have made almost anyone wary of letting him within arm's reach.

She'd probably never know who was the stronger opponent. Lee wavered and fell to his knees when a cloud of white feathers fluttered down, catching most of the stadium in genjutsu thrall.

"Kai!" Aiko snapped, shaking her brother's shoulder until the glazed look snapped out of his eyes. Sasuke had shaken it off just as easily as she did, though he looked confused.

"W-what?" The blonde turned his head, taking in the sleeping spectators… and the foreign shinobi who coasted among them like ghosts, perforating throats methodically in the split seconds before the Konoha nin who had thrown off the genjutsu gathered their wits and leapt to battle. Sasuke snarled and leapt at a lone nin two rows below who was raising a blade to a group of sleeping Academy students. She would have gone to help him, if another group hadn't drawn her attention at that moment.

A team of Oto nin who had just dismissed the illusions hiding them as civilian spectators were coming in hot, the kunoichi in the lead clearly out to get the two nin who were awake. Aiko leapt off the seat, kunai in her right hand and joined battle with a clash of steel, rabbit fast punches with her left to the brunette's abdomen and twisted her armed hand under the other girls' guard into a follow-up swipe that split her face from left jaw to her right eye. The screaming was terrible but short—she smoothly severed the spinal cord at the base of the girl's head when the unwary kunoichi reflexively jerked her face forward and exposed the neck.

Almost instantly, she twisted away into the path of one of the other two nin, pausing immediately behind him before he caught up with what had just happened and managed a quick, deep jab into the tender flesh of the boy's lower back, piercing his kidney. He went down, so she didn't bother to finish him before she whipped around to face the third genin (and they appeared to be genin, only suitable for killing sleeping opponents, pathetic). She was pleased to note that Naruto had regained his senses and managed a kunai toss that the older boy barely dodged, easily adjusting for the attempt at evasive movement and cleanly snapping his neck. Naruto panted from shock, wild-eyed. "What's going on!"

'Sad that he's looking to me for direction. Kakashi-sensei, you asshole. You're supposed to be the one to send us after Gaara. Where are you? I can make the call myself, but I might get in trouble for it later if this goes south.'

She let none of that appear on her face, taking a moment to check on the positions of the people she knew. The three sand genin were fleeing out an open hole in the stadium side towards the village center, Tenten and Lee taking up pursuit. She didn't see their third teammate—oh no, he was with Gai on the upper deck. "It appears that Sand and Sound have betrayed us."
Sasuke flickered to her side, dark eyes full of violence. "Cowards. We should show them what real nin can do," he spat.
Aiko assessed the situation, knowing what she had to do but also worried about leaving all the sleeping Konoha citizens. Someone else had already noted that problem, apparently. Team Ten was flipping around the stadium disabling the genjutsu to free anyone unwary enough to be caught, their sensei guarding their backs with a grim expression and twin blades.

"Come on." She leapt easily to the stadium floor, dodging fights in the straightest path to the outside she could manage. Her two subordinates followed, although they didn't seem to understand.

"Gaara of the Sand and his team immediately ran out toward the village center, as if they were just waiting for a signal. Whatever they're meant to do is bound to be a big problem, and there's only two genin going after them that I saw. We are providing assistance. Sasuke, if it is necessary your preferred target is the girl. She's the oldest and probably the most intelligent of the three, but you're fast and strong enough to get behind her wind jutsu." The boy nodded, a business like expression plastered to his features. "I think Gaara is the biggest threat. I will aim to have Cat-face removed from the fight immediately so that I can provide assistance to you, Naruto."

"H-hai, Aiko-neechan."

It was a damn shame that none of them were trackers by trade, but at least Tenten had left what appeared to be a metaphorical breadcrumb trail of scattered weaponry for them to follow. The first fight they found was Lee and Kankuro, which made her orders practically useless—before the boy even knew they were there, Aiko flickered forward and caught the hatred and fear in his gaze in the instant before she hit his head with enough force to shatter bone. He instantly lost consciousness.

Aiko frowned, mildly worried that she had hit him too hard. She had intended to leave the Sand siblings alive if at all possible, knowing that they could become valuable allies. She rolled him into a recovery position, stripped him of weaponry and was done before Sasuke finished tying his hands behind his back with wire.

'Smart kid, I didn't even ask him to help.'

The whole encounter took about ten seconds from start to finish.

"Hello, Uzumaki-san, Uchiha-san, and Uzumaki-san again! Have you come to help?" Lee seemed surprisingly relaxed that she had just barged in on his fight, so she gave him a rare smile.

"Hai, Lee-san. We should catch up to your teammate. I know that she is skilled, but two on one is poor odds."

He didn't offer any protests, easily joining the group. "Do you know what they're doing," Aiko half-yelled over the sounds of wind rushing as they attempted to catch up.

The tall boy shook his head, eyes busy cataloging whatever story the spray of senbon on an oak they passed told. "No, but Tenten seemed adamant that they were up to no good! Gai-sensei and my eternal rival stayed to provide assistance to the Hokage's guards, but we were ordered to follow." She could hear the frown in his voice. "I do not like the looks of that redheaded boy, Uzumaki-san. He is most unkind."
'That's a bit of an understatement.'

"We're close," Sasuke rasped, dark eyes narrowing.

________________________________________

Karin fought the urge to shrink into the wall, away from the insanity that had just erupted in the hospital where she was just starting to feel at home (in a good way, not like Grass). Something had gone terribly wrong in the village. They didn't have any information yet, but the sudden influx of patients and the hostile nin roaming the halls were pretty big clues.

She squeaked involuntarily at the unmistakable fluttering chakra that signified fighting down the corridor to the long-term ward (and wasn't that strange, new admissions were obviously being brought to emergency), red eyes searching for friendly faces. The experienced nurses and iryo-nin had leapt into battle, literal and metaphorical, and she had yet to be trained in triage or emergency procedures.

'I'm a kunoichi,' she reminded herself firmly. 'If I can't help medically, I can fight!'

That in mind, she sprinted full-pace towards the disturbance she had noted. What she saw shocked her. The face-off was between a short, brunette kunoichi with casts on both arms and a sneering man wearing a Sound headband. It was really more of the kunoichi using her arms as guards to prevent the man from getting close enough to knock her unconscious, as seemed to be his aim. If he had been intending to kill her, he would have already.

She took stock of her situation in the long instant before either of the fighters noticed her presence. Karin was not carrying any traditional weaponry. For some reason, Konoha just wasn't comfortable with having a trainee who had become a citizen about a week ago armed around unconscious soldiers, a point she had understood. Her taijutsu was poor. Her phenomenal sensing skills were useless—she already knew he was there. She had a clipboard in her left hand and a pen in her front pocket. On the other hand, the man was distracted by another opponent and she had endured so much anatomy being drilled into her head in the past three weeks that she could think of any number of ways to kill him with the clipboard.

The choice was pretty easy. She leapt into close range, used the clipboard to deflect his first hit, and slipped out the pen, clicking it reflexively and forcing it directly into the gap of the man's clavicles and jerking it back just as soon so that it didn't stopper the hole. Blood spray formed an impromptu fountain that she side-stepped to avoid, somewhat unsuccessfully.
The Sound-nin gargled pathetically, falling to his knees as Karin examined her front and grimaced. "Ugh gross." She flipped her hair, trying to keep the tips dry. "This shirt is ruined." The white medic's coat hadn't done much to protect her adorable lacy tanktop.

The girl she had saved shuddered, big wide lavender eyes focused on the man dying on the crappy linoleum floor of her hospital room.

"You're welcome," she said pointedly, considering slipping off the soggy top and fighting in her bra. The feeling of blood-soaked cloth drying against her skin was one she both hated and was intimately familiar with.

The other girl bowed hastily, a bizarre bit of formality in her already weird day. "Thank you, kunoichi-san! I woke up, and that man was here. Do you know what is happening?"

Karin sighed, considering taking her emergency blade out of her glasses just so that she wasn't totally unarmed, dropping the broken pen idly. "Not a clue. I'm just a trainee here. No one seems to know, but there's a whole lot of injured coming in suddenly, as well as Sound and Sand shinobi roaming the halls." She frowned, remembering something about Sound. "You have a bloodline, then?"

At the other girl's squeak, she scowled. "Figures. That makes sense. They're looking to make off with examples of Konoha's bloodlines while the main forces are distracted. You want to help guard the sleeping patients?" Karin industriously smashed a glass drinking vessel while she talked, pocketing the more promising looking shards.

The other girl looked shame-faced and red. "I… I'm not a good shinobi," she all but whispered, looking like she was confessing to being a drug lord or something instead of unskilled.

Karin merely snorted. "Me either, but that doesn't mean it's any less important for you to try. You can watch my back—even with two broken arms your taijutsu is better than mine, and I'm basically unarmed." She started out the door without another word. "You can't stay here, they'll probably come for you again. Your name is on the door, isn't it?"

Feeling a little overwhelmed but still the dutiful daughter of Konoha, Hyuuga Hinata glanced at her own name on the door as she passed by, running to catch up to the strange girl who talked so quickly. Better than being alone, she supposed. She carefully didn't look back at the room where she had spent a month, with the depressing artwork of a fruit bowl and the one vase of wilted flowers on the windowsill.

________________________________________

"Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit," Aiko chanted, dodging pillars of sand from a distracted but still deadly jinchuuriki, trying not to have an absolute fit and succumb to the combined fear of her opponent and of the three fucking massive snakes wearing BIBS (sick and hilarious) that had just crashed the party about a half-mile away at the gate. A snake you could see from a half-mile away was a terrible snake.

Not that she had a fondness for snakes in general. They creeped her out when they moved. Stationary snakes are A-okay. But the wiggling…

She shuddered, feeling desperation slide over her mind. Gaara was quickly transitioning to his jinchuuriki form. Naruto in jinchuuriki mode was about their only chance of defeating him, and he had never activated it. Tenten had narrowly escaped a maiming blow- actually, all four of the genin fighting with her had been extraordinarily lucky so far. But any minute now the handicap Gaara was experiencing from the transition would turn into an enormous advantage.

Once they'd felt that monstrous chakra, Temari had given up on slowing them down and made a run for it, clearly terrified of her brother but reluctant to go too far from his side. It was sad, really. The girl was currently hanging back and observing the fight with nerves that led her to bite already short nails—Temari probably didn't even know what outcome she was hoping for.
She couldn't imagine being frightened of her brother but still determined to make sure he was safe. Being frightened for Naruto was quite stressful enough.

"Naruto!" she yelled over the noise of the fight. "You need the kyuubi's chakra, now! He's using the one-tailed demon's power."
Tenten and Sasuke both gave her sharp looks, Lee seemed too involved in the fight to spare her a thought, and Naruto looked determined… but definitely not connected to the Kyuubi.

Her heart felt like it hit the bottom of her stomach. 'Think, stupid girl. He first activated it in canon when he thought Sasuke was dead, secondly when he thought Sakura was in lethal danger. He accesses the chakra either through anger or protective anger, specifically. I need to make him mad.' She grimaced. This was going to hurt.

Aiko leapt into close range as only Lee had dared so far, dodging fatal-looking attacks and hoping she didn't get killed when Shukaku's creepy eyes focused on her. The grin was even worse than the eyes, in her humble opinion… and up close, the stench of rot and blood from the sand was overwhelming. She fought the urge to gag and flee in equal measure. 'I've never fought an opponent who outclassed me like this before.' The thought was not reassuring. As if it wanted to pretend that the fear pressing all around didn't exist, her body reflexively went through the motions for a series of water bullets. 'Let's hope he can't work with mud as well as he does sand.' She soaked as much as she could, knowing that the basic jutsu couldn't actually pierce the armor.

'Please slow down.' Shukaku wasn't nearly as fast as Lee, but there was a pretty big difference between Lee and other genin, like Naruto. Besides, demons probably don't tire nearly as easily as humans.

She might have been onto something with her use of water, because her move really pissed off the demon. It was hard to register anything beyond the enormous roar that filled the air, but she took the time to notice that the string of sand that grabbed around both her ankles and flung her headfirst into a tree was the smallest amount she'd ever seen him use at one time. She quirked a smile in the instant before the impact knocked her unconscious, coming dangerously close to snapping her neck.

In any other situation, she might have been embarrassed to be caught and carried to a safer distance by one of the genin in her care. Once she awoke, however, and learned that Naruto had flipped a switch into crazy town that had made Sasuke not entirely mind the retreat, she was too relieved to care. She came to consciousness the next day in a hospital bed, bandages over wounds she didn't remember getting and an iv securing her to the bed. She paled, closing her eyes and curling up as much as she could without moving her arm.

She could kill twenty men before breakfast without blinking and had stoically tolerated more than a couple scrapes and stab wounds in her almost three year career, but somehow that little needle still made her want to cry.

A few steady breaths, a conscious steeling of her nerves and she had managed to calm herself to the point where she could pretend not to be disturbed by the needle in the delicate crook of her elbow.

That was lucky, because a tired-looking nurse poked his head in a moment later and took the needle out, droning through the litany of her injuries and treatment recommendations. It was a song and dance she knew well, so she quietly tolerated it, thanked him, and slipped out. She had received all critical treatment while asleep and been cleared of a possible concussion or brain damage, so there was no need to stick around. Besides… she pretended not to see the civilians packed like sardines into treatment rooms on her way out. They could use the extra room.

In triage, shinobi came first, according to rank or social status. How valuable they were, really. It was a shockingly amoral way of treating patients, but she had long ago figured out that what she thought of as morality was altogether foreign from a ninja mindset.

The subdued atmosphere of the village wasn't exactly surprising, but it made even more sense when Aiko first found someone to ask about the situation. The information was a little scattered—the giant snakes she had noted had done a number on the infrastructure, but been fought off by a group of Inuzuka and some very large toads. The Third Hokage was on his deathbed and in a non-responsive coma, all the Academy students and genin teams had been reassigned to manual labor digging for survivors and repairing damages while the bulk of the higher ranked nin went out to patrol the borders to ensure that no one thought to strike at Konoha's weakness. Apparently Sound had done a runner after which Sand had quickly surrendered and their surviving nin were still in the village under supervision.

The rumor that caught her most off guard was the one saying that Orochimaru was dead.

'How the fuck did that happen? Does this have to do with Jiraiya?' The inclusion of the toads was the only thing she hadn't half-expected, after all. Aiko didn't know if she wanted to frown or not- it might not be true anyways and she'd be wasting her time thinking about it. Then again, enough people had claimed to see giant toads that it seemed clear Jiraiya was in Konoha for the invasion. She was pretty sure he had not been in canon, though she could be wrong.

It was all rather confusing and not entirely pleasant to wake up to. She was now pretty much like everyone else in this shithole of a village—she had vague fears for the future, suspected that there were monster shinobi out there who would harm her and hers and could only grit her teeth and prepare as best as possible for the upcoming disaster.

Not encouraging.

Unfortunately, it seemed that she could still expect a few unpleasant things from canon. It wasn't until late that night when she went home and found a tired, filthy looking Karin washing yesterday's dishes that she heard Naruto had left the village with Jiraiya while she was unconscious.

"He wanted to wait until you woke, but the nurses didn't know how long it would take," Karin said apologetically, grabbing the entire carton of apple juice of the fridge and gulping it down greedily. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, which Aiko only then realized was shaking.

The two sat down at the table with their thoughts and a carton of juice each. It would usually be dinner time, but neither of them felt up to cooking. It turned out that Karin had been drafted for grunt work at the hospital- changing sheets, bringing around food for patients, refilling coffee for medical nin on the tenth hour of their shift or worse and doing all manner of errands that would usually be an orderly's job.

Aiko stared out the kitchen window, a little bothered that Konoha looked as it always did from her vantage point. Their location on the outskirts of town had been a good selection, apparently. 'So this is what a village in flux looks like.' Even without foreknowledge, she would have known that a power struggle was going on somewhere in the village at this moment. She just wouldn't have known that her silly otouto was about to get caught up in it.

________________________________________
Jiraiya carefully didn't look at his blonde companion when they kitted down for the night. Didn't look at the way those eyes were a dead ringer for Minato's, didn't look at the way that pudgy baby face and those comically short legs screamed 'Kushina', and definitely didn't look at the way his sullen, combative attitude conflicted with everything Sarutobi had told him about the kid.
At least the other kid they had brought along depressed him less. The last Uchiha… what a joke. At that age, Itachi had been an ANBU captain. The child in front of him carried a heavy burden with very little talent.

There was a good possibility that the angst choking the air was a result of the recent death of their teammate and that their teacher had essentially abandoned them in his own grief. Jiraiya was highly qualified to commiserate, but much less so to guide them out of their funk. If he knew how to get over grief and disappointment, he'd be a very different man. Most days, Jiraiya hated himself.

He already knew he was scum for essentially abandoning his godchildren to raise themselves like wild animals, even if it was for the village's sake. Jiraiya certainly didn't need to all but choke on the palpable bitterness wafting off the kid to remember that shame and just what Minato would have said about it.

It had been easier, only getting occasional reports. From what Sarutobi had implied, the twins were growing up fine. To hear him tell it, the boy was vivacious and charming, though his sister was the one with sharp wit and sharper skills. He had been warned that the girl was on the verge of paranoia and hostility even by shinobi standards, so he had steeled himself to be harshly questioned when he told the girl he was her godfather she didn't remember meeting.

He hadn't seen that in Konoha, when he stumbled into that hospital room with his old teammate and friend's blood still on his hands and seen that tiny, bruised figure under white sheets. He wasn't seeing Sarutobi's description in this strange, sharp little boy either.

If the girl had been awake, he might have taken Aiko with them. Kami only knows that she couldn't have dragged the atmosphere any further down. The boy's second demand had been his other teammate, but that brat was just as sullen. It was a good idea, though. He hadn't thought of it himself, but the Uchiha was in a similar danger to what Naruto faced in the village.

"So what exactly is this person doing?" Naruto kicked up a clod of dirt with his toes, digging for a firepit. His tone was mostly uninterested. Jiraiya had practically had to carry him bodily out of Konoha to pry him away from his sister's bedside, but it couldn't be helped. It would be insanely stupid to leave him unprotected in the middle of a power vacuum. Danzo would snap him up like the last dumpling. Then he'd have to kill Danzo to get him back, and the village could ill afford that.

Jiraiya awkwardly cleared his throat. "What do you mean, gaki?" Those blue eyes looked at him, annoyed. He had to consciously decide not to look away.

"The woman we are looking for is the next Hokage, right? If she's that powerful, why isn't she in contact with the village?" Those big black eyes and the attached long, thick lashes were dead-on for every female Uchiha he'd ever known. Never seen them on a boy before, though. In two years and in a dress…

Jiraiya winced and forcibly changed his train of thought. "Ah, well. That's a long story, kid. Maybe another time."

Naruto scoffed and turned away, sullen and silent for the rest of the night.

Feeling incredibly depressed- he had killed one of this oldest friends a few hours ago, his teacher was dying alone, all his students were dead, and the boys in front of him were teetering on a dangerous precipice.

"Hey, cheer up kids. Tell you what, I'll teach you each a new jutsu tomorrow. I won't promise either of you knuckleheads can actually master them, though."

Naruto needed that Rasengan anyway. Now was as good a time as any to start passing down his father's masterpiece. He'd been damn disappointed to find out Aiko's chakra affinity was with water, but so much for that. As for the Uchiha… well, fire and lightning weren't his specialties, but he'd be damned if he couldn't scrounge up something that would impress a twelve year old. Even a sourpuss like this one.

________________________________________
He was on the border of Fire and Wind country when he heard the news. Itachi frowned slightly, suddenly less interested in his dango and tea than he had been a moment ago. At his side, Kisame sucked down plain green tea undisturbed, though he had undoubtedly overheard the same conversation.

Itachi didn't like what he had heard. Not at all. It went beyond even the normal grief a loyal shinobi would have when hearing of their military dictator's imminent death although no one knew he was loyal now, except Danzo, Jiraiya and the council.
And therein lay the extra problem. Sarutobi had promised Itachi with tears in his eyes that he would keep Sasuke safe and fairly healthy, out of the influence of malcontent power mongers like Danzo and the Council. With Sarutobi dead…

The man stood with a tinkle of bells, casually dropping the coin for his uneaten food. "Come, Kisame."

A sigh. "I knew you would say that." Almost eight feet of blue muscle unfolded from the seat next to Itachi's on the bar. "We're going to go put the fear of kami in some poor bastard, aren't we?"

Itachi didn't smile, but he did appreciate his partner's easygoing nature. Not every man would go on a hundred mile detour for the sake of a twelve year old he didn't know. He'd have to pay this one back somehow.

Chapter Text

Five ninja sat uncomfortably close in a stall. Jiraiya had managed to sit across from Tsunade, leaving the two boys to pile in next to him and Shizune to linger at the end of the table for a long moment, before she cuddled Tonton closer and sat down next to her mentor. Naruto made a reach for a sake saucer, but the taller blonde slapped his hand away with nearly enough force to break the delicate bones in his hand. He resentfully glared at her, holding his hand to his chest.

"Serves you right, loser," Sasuke said in a low undertone, managing to become the new target of Naruto's ire. The boys squirmed, engaging in under-the-table warfare with kicks and elbow jabs.

Tsunade gave her old teammate a distinctly unimpressed expression. "I didn't know you were dragging around brats now. Going to get those ones killed too?" Shizune winced at that particular bit of bluntness, but Jiraiya knew better than to react. She was trying to drive him away. Calmly, he poured drinks for the three adults, noticing Shizune's raised hand a moment late. Tsunade solved the problem by slamming down her drink and then pushing the saucer away.

"Have you heard about what happened yet?"

The older blonde's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about, pervert?"

Sasuke spared a moment from his covert war against Naruto to smirk at that insult. He hadn't been pleased by their guide's habit of 'stopping to observe the sights'. It was one of the few times when he deigned to outwardly agree with Naruto—the man's behavior was an embarrassment and completely degraded the often-civilian women he took advantage of to leer at. Plus, he was still trying to process the strange way the white-haired man had looked at him before off-handedly mentioning that he looked just like his mother. Sasuke shuddered in his seat.

When it came, the reply was measured, calm, and almost emotionless. "Orochimaru went and founded his own village, which he used as leverage to kill the Kazekage, take his place and have the two groups attack Konoha from the inside during the Chuunin exam."

Tsunade visibly expressed surprise- a minor victory for Jiraiya. He had her off balance. Shizune didn't have her mentor's reticence and leaned forward, face twisted into dismay. Tonton began to wiggle when her grip tightened. "What happened?"
Jiraiya very noticeably did not look down her kimono when she leaned forward, Naruto noted with some surprise while he tried to pull his aching shins out of Sasuke's reach. His face was the most serious the boys had ever seen. "I killed Oro- the bastard, but Sandaime-sama… Sensei is dying. He's in a coma. Tsunade, the village is in dire need. That vulture Danzo and his cronies are doing everything they can to steal as much power as possible before Sensei is even cold. We need a strong candidate for Hokage. Someone who no one can claim isn't qualified for the job."

Naruto's eyes were wide at the dramatic way the information was laid out, but everyone else had regained their feet. "No." Tsunade shook her head, ponytails swishing over her shoulders. "Absolutely not. That job…" She unconsciously splayed her fingers across her collarbones, brushing against a pendant. "Only a moron would take that job!"

Sasuke sent a genuinely considering look at Naruto, his thoughts written plainly over his features for once. 'Good news, if that's true we have a great candidate.' Tsunade caught the look and gave a mean, mildly hysterical sound of amusement, but no one else acknowledged it. He'd expected Naruto to react to the other blonde's declaration, but the other boy was staring at the older woman across the table with disgust frozen on his features. 'Maybe he gave up on that dream,' Sasuke idly thought. 'He hasn't mentioned it since before… He hasn't mentioned it since before the exam.'

"Fuck you, old lady!" Naruto banged a fist on the table, standing up so violently that the bench was pushed back.
'Ah, there's the reaction,' Sasuke thought blandly.

"The Hokage have been some of the greatest people born to our village. You can't possibly say that the Sandaime was a moron. He was brilliant, like the Yondaime! I'm going to be the Hokage one day and you won't say crap like that then!" He leaned across the table aggressively, shouting into her face with his hands planted on the table surface.

Shizune covered her dark eyes with the hand that wasn't strangling Tonton. Eyes the color of honey, ringed by ridiculously long blonde lashes narrowed dangerously. Her left hand shot out and tangled into the front of Naruto's shirt, pointed nails digging into the fabric. "Listen, kid," she snarled. "I have known people with ten times more talent than you with that same dream, and they all ended up dead chasing it. You don't have a chance. You should give up now, while you still can. There's some good advice for you."

"Why would I give up, when a loser like you already has that market cornered," Naruto jeered. "I don't know why the pervert even bothered to track down someone as old and bitter as you!" Jiraiya twitched in his seat.

Always ready to chime in with an insult, Sasuke added, "We might be better off with the pervert in charge than a coward." He glanced over at his teammate, who looked significantly less idiotic than usual and hadn't kicked him in almost a minute. "The idiot might even do a better job. Come on. We're wasting our time." He turned to slide out of the seat, dismissing the fact that Naruto was still trapped in Tsunade's monster grip.

"Don't you walk away from me," the older woman practically roared. "You brats! You have no idea what I've been through that led me to know that position is bad news!" She dropped her alcohol untouched, letting the liquid splash over the table and grabbing Sasuke by his obnoxiously wide collar. Tsunade then proceeded to bodily lift both boys above the table, letting them kick futilely. Naruto managed to clip Jiraiya on the head pretty well, but she was too furious to laugh at his misfortune and the shoeprint in his hair.

Naruto gave her back just as good as he got with kicks and muffled exclamations, face red from both oxygen deprivation and mindless rage. Jiraiya joined Shizune in escape, slumping down in his seat to crawl out under the table on his hands and knees while the more conventional path was blocked by struggling adolescent feet.

"And don't you dare call me old," she added, as if an afterthought. "I'm almost a full year younger than that white-haired moron you followed here!"

There was a moment of silence, then Naruto's face twisted in mild surprise. "Holy shit, you're that old? I thought you were more like thirty than a gazillion." A small, squeaking sound of inestimable rage escaped through Tsunade's dropped jaw. The muscle below Jiraiya's right eye twitched, and he paused in his stealthy retreat to slowwwwwly turn around.

"You're getting off topic, idiot," Sasuke choked out even though the words were muffled by the collar that was currently covering almost his entire face.

"The bastard has a point," Naruto rallied in much the same easy way as he'd just insulted two of the three adults at the table. "You're still a loser, and you're wrong about being Hokage! The Hokage protects the village and everyone in it." He practically shone with the force of his conviction. The darkness and newly acquired doubt in that particular ambition that someone who knew him would see was completely invisible to Tsunade's eyes.

As someone who did see the crack in the slight pause Naruto gave mid-sentence, Sasuke shifted uncomfortably. Something that was still raw related to their missing teammate tainted the way he thought about what the loser said. He usually felt derisive when the idiot made declarations like that one. But… 'Maybe Naruto isn't such an idiot after all. The idea of wanting to protect your precious people… If I had precious people left, I would want to protect them from Itachi.'

Sakura had definitely not been a precious person. But she had been familiar and increasingly tolerable. Even if she had remained as annoying as she had been at the start, he would still have tried to protect her from enemies.

Maybe Naruto was onto something with the idea of protecting people you loved. That was a lot like getting revenge for people if you had never failed to keep them safe from a monster in the first place. It would be accomplished in much the same way, after all. Killing Itachi and others like him.

Tsunade's grip momentarily loosened while she stared at the blonde, some strange emotion passing over her face. Of course, with Jiraiya and Shizune at a slightly safer distance and Sasuke's face covered by his collar, the only one who saw it was also the only one without the social skills to recognize that he'd just made the busty woman think about something else. Her eyes softened, and she let go of both boys in order to bury her face in her hands, elbows splayed out on the table. Naruto yelped as his tailbone connected with the seat, while Sasuke missed the bench altogether and managed to be the only person in the world to fall to the floor and struggle his way out of his shirt in a semi-dignified manner.

Tsunade's shoulder shook, though whether she was laughing or crying was anyone's guess. Jiraiya swooped back in and extracted both preteens, bundling them off into Shizune's custody and quietly asking if she could please take them to the hotel, he needed a word with his old teammate. She was actually flustered enough to comply.

________________________________________

"You're pretty good at that," Karin said blandly, not looking at Aiko at all. She licked a fingertip and turned the page of the medical text she was reading, face not displaying any of the frustration Aiko would have felt in her place. 'Anatomy of Chakra Systems: How it Can Go Wrong; Third Edition' sounded like a book used for torture, not education.

The taller redhead grimaced. "Very funny, Karin." She gave up on the attempt at chakra chains for the moment, viciously kicking a rock that she could displace her anger on to. It bounced across the training ground on the outskirts of town, ending up in a patch of mud.

Her companion raised one eyebrow silently. Aiko flushed. 'What is it about this girl that gets me so flustered?' she griped. Karin had some sort of sixth sense for making Aiko feel immature and silly.

With a sigh, Aiko ran through a mental list of what she should get done for the day. With the reconstruction occupying a good portion of her time, she had been neglecting her regular training.

'I can't go another day without trying to get the senbon trick to work,' she decided. She'd been putting it off for a while. Anko had demonstrated a wrist-flick that sent a brace of senbon hidden under fingerless gloves flying. It looked really cool, and was a low energy, low chakra way of turning around a fight… especially if she poisoned them. They weren't poisoned yet, of course. Until she had gotten to a point where she aimed them reliably, that would be a phenomenally stupid idea.

"That's my cue to leave," Karin said dryly, marking a spot in her book.

Aiko blinked at the other girl, confused. "What are you talking about?"

A theatrical sigh filled the air, and the older girl held up two fingers. "One. You're staring at the target circle and rotating your wrists, indicating that you're thinking about possibly skewering my person with badly aimed senbon again."

"I said I was sorry," Aiko grumbled a bit bitterly. Karin gave her a withering look and plowed over the mild objection.

"Two. Sasuke-san and one more person are coming in this direction, and fast. I don't know the other, but it's like monstrously big. It must be that Sannin he left with. Sasuke doesn't seem to like me at the best of times, and right now his chakra signature feels really weird. It's really.." she scrunched up her nose. "It's really still, kind of, and he feels very sad. If I had ever felt another chakra signature like Sasuke's, I would say it was a different person. But his is so unique." Karin's eyes glazed and she dreamily floated off on a tangent, as she often did when she tried to describe the unique way she understood the world. A bit bewildered, Aiko let her. "I think it must be connected to the Sharingan. But he also just has the most beautiful aura, Aiko."

It would probably be best to pretend not to hear the sigh, Aiko decided. "Okay then." She glanced at her target, wondering how long she'd have to practice until Sasuke showed up. She didn't want to skewer him either. "How long til he's here?"

Karin closed her eyes for a moment, entering that clear, practical state of mind she slipped into when there was intellectual work to be done. She bit her lower lip just once before she opened her eyes and mouth. "About two minutes, if he keeps a steady pace. He'll be cutting right through there, about forty feet north of us." She frowned, noticing something. "Which is rather bad of him, he'd only come this way if he were avoiding using the gates. He and that Jiraiya person are slipping in through an unpatrolled section. I don't sense Naruto or anyone else either. Something important must have happened."

'That's really weird. Maybe Naruto is with Tsunade?' Aiko thanked her housemate and waved her off, finally getting to start working on hitting that damn target. Anko had made this move look so easy, slipping out ten senbon one right after another with highspeed and impeccable aim. When Aiko did it, they all tended to flop out at once and fall to the ground about a foot away from her outstretched hand.

'Maybe I need to try one at a time.' Instead of packing them all back under her glove, she slipped just one senbon in and tucked the rest into her thigh pouch. After her rough count indicated that a minute and fifty seconds had passed but she still didn't sense Sasuke's chakra signature, she frowned. Granted, she wasn't a sensor like Karin, but it was still embarrassing that a genin could hide from her. 'Jiraiya must have either taught him how to block or be blocking for him,' she decided.

Then she decided to take a chance. At worst, she was talking to herself and no one would know. If Karin had been right, she'd fool him into thinking that she still had one over him. Aiko repressed a smirk. 'Maybe the impulse to prank poor Sasuke is contagious.'

"Sasuke-kun, you're ten years early to successfully sneak past me," she idly called out. For a moment, a chakra signature fluttered in and out of her ability to feel out of what had to be surprise. She'd managed to shake him much more than she would have guessed. She smiled to herself. 'Oh yeah, paydirt.' Funny, that. He really shouldn't be too surprised to be caught out by someone of a higher rank.

The redhead gave a deep sigh, flicking her wrist again to send just the one senbon flying. Remarkably, it hit the target. She tried to exercise similarly good aim with her teasing. "Isn't my cute little kohai going to say hello, after you've been gone so long? It hurt my feelings, you know, to wake up in the hospital alone." There may have been a little bit of genuine bitterness in that sentence. She slipped another senbon out of her pouch to ascertain if the hit was a fluke or indication that she'd figured the basic move out before she added a second.

Then the two men behind her actually dropped their chakra cloaking technique and she almost literally choked in surprise, dropping the senbon into the dirt and whirling around to see that the fucking scary signature that had only the barest of similarities to Sasuke's (and what the hell was Karin smoking? Did she even feel the same things Aiko did when she used Kagura of the Mind's Eye?) and that the other belonged to about eight feet of big, blue man.

She swallowed, hard, and wished the next words out of her mouth were a little more intelligent than "You're not Sasuke." Aiko did her level best to sink into the ground.

In her short career as a ninja in this batshit world, she had managed to push back fear many times. Aiko knew that she did not have the plot armor that the manga characters had, but she could have also have been relatively certain that the no-name opponents she fought had weaknesses. Most of them could be outsmarted. She took out most of her opponents in something other than direct combat—she sensed them, poisoned them, or herded them where she needed them or something like that. Occasionally she had to revert to taijutsu, but that was her best skill.

She could not push back this fear, because she recognized these two people by their coloring and clothing. There was absolutely zero chance she could outsmart or outfight these two.

Uchiha Itachi lowered his head slightly and took off the hideous, bell-ringed hat, letting it fall to the side. "No." Calm red eyes cut into her face as if looking for something underneath her skin. "I am not." The man beside her grinned with utterly terrifying pointed teeth. 'Is that just a Kririgakure thing?' some portion of her brain that still operating managed to question.

The part of her brain that wasn't functioning helped her blurt out, "Is now a bad time to scream like a little girl and run for my mommy?" She fought the urge to back up and put as much distance as possible between her and these guys. That wasn't the ninja thing to do. At the moment, it seemed like a fabulous idea.

Kisame (that was fucking Hoshigaki Kisame ten feet from her, looking dangerous as all hell) gave a short, barking laugh. "That would be a very bad idea." He bared his teeth at her. "You wouldn't get very far, kid."

Indeed. Her physical conditioning was nowhere near theirs, eliminating both flight and taijutsu as life-saving possibilities. 'Suddenly, being a shinobi who specializes in taijutsu seems like a terrible idea. When there are monsters like this around, anyway.' Her right hand drifted down to her thigh pouch, where she had poison, kunai and explosive tags. "No, but I think fighting wouldn't end much better," she pointed out in a calm tone utterly at odds with the hysteria bubbling up.
'Itachi is supposed to secretly be a good guy, right? He probably won't kill me. I think.' The thought wasn't that comforting. 'I can't beat them, I can't really stall them for long, and I definitely can't just let two S-class criminals pass me into town.'

"How about we have a nice civil conversation and then you two leave as reformed men, happy to abandon whatever nefarious things you had planned?"

'That plan might work for Naruto. Maybe I also inherited therapy-no-jutsu, despite the total lack of charisma I've shown so far?' Ugh, long shot. She slipped a finger through the loop of a kunai, pretending not to know that the older two definitely saw the move and could have killed her at least five times while she made it. Each.

"A decent plan," the taller man leered. "But not as good as the original plan, sorry." He hefted his gigantic sword.
"Kisame."

Everyone stopped to look at the Uchiha, who was still staring at her with unnerving focus. She felt her legs begin to shake.

"Leave us. Continue with the plan."

His hand fell from the handle of his sword, and Kisame shook his head fondly. "I suppose I'll find a better fight, then." In a flash he was gone, chakra signature still unbound and almost certain to attract a lot of attention, very fast. Aiko swallowed, hard, and hoped against hope Karin wouldn't wander right to him to find out why 'Sasuke' had been feeling so strange. No, she wouldn't. She might have mistaken Itachi for Sasuke when he was repressing his chakra, but not when he was practically shouting his presence.

"Why did you think I was someone else." His face was as blank as his tone, but she knew that if he hadn't cared he would have left.

She instantly felt like ten kinds an idiot. 'Of course it would be worrisome to an S-class criminal who happens to be a spy that some random Chuunin apparently sensed him when he was meant to be stealthy. I can't tell him that it wasn't me who sensed him without selling out Karin, and she doesn't deserve to get involved in this.' She was trapped.

"I'm not telling you shit," she spat, feeling quite a bit less brave than she sounded. Irritation or something quite like it flashed through his red eyes in the instant before she broke eye contact and flung three kunai at the bulk of his body and shot to her left, fingers shooting together to start a handsign sequence and not succeeding. That failure was in large part due to the rather large, warm hand that had captured both hands and forced them together with the palms facing outwards so that she couldn't form handsigns. The other hand pushed against her shoulder with uncomfortable force, pinning her against a tree. Reflexively, she kicked out at his shins and received a tightened grip in response.

"I do not play games, kunoichi."

Up close, he seemed much taller. Perhaps it had just been the fact that he'd been standing next to Hoshigaki that had made her think he wasn't so big. Not that height mattered, but she was used to her unusual height putting her only about six inches below most adults. She really did feel like a child now, subdued almost instantly like she'd been naughty and merely needed correction. She swallowed, knowing that he could probably feel the rabbit-like flutter of her heartbeat through his palm.
He probably sensed the angry presence barreling straight for him before Aiko did, but it might have been close. It was a presence she was very familiar with, after all. She started to smile, feeling inestimably relieved that her sensei had pulled through, followed by what felt like Gai. That was when her eyes met those of the man pinning her for the third time. This time, she didn't marvel at their color or coldness. Instead, she found herself mildly surprised to perceive that she was in a world of black-and-white, and that the redness was still pure and intense. It was possibly more intense than usual because it was the only color visible.

"Tsukyomi," he intoned, sounding almost bored. "I have almost literally all the time in the world for you to explain how you sensed my presence." Aiko hyperventilated, tugging at the ropes that bound her to a cross and trying not to look frightened when he pulled out a short blade. 'If he isn't evil, he is doing an excellent imitation,' she noted weakly. 'That in mind, I can't tell him Karin was the one who sensed him. He might go find her. She's an important village asset now.'

She said nothing, averting her eyes and allowing herself to go limp, doing her very best to ignore his presence and recede into her own mind. That lack of struggle made his next words seem a bit futile and redundant. "This is a dimension of my own making where time passes as I wish and I control all. You cannot hope to fight me here."

'This is the part where he disembowels me, right?' She braced for the pain. 'Is it Tartarus who was disemboweled every day by an eagle? I haven't brushed up on my mythology lately.' The thought almost made her giggle out of some bizarre form of nerves and sheer terror.

'Go inside, where he can't hurt you,' she reminded herself, thinking of the lessons on torture resistance and wearing them like a cloak.

Of course, a cloak didn't keep her safe from the blade that started by tracing a line up her arm, slicing off chunks of flesh.
"How did you sense me, little one?"

________________________________________

Dog felt the silent scream of adrenaline that had begun the instant he sensed those two monstrous presences emerge in training ground seven, eyes glued to the figure of his long-term student in the exact instant that the relief at his presence fell off her face and the man holding her let go, allowing her to collapse in a pile at his feet.

He barely registered that his team was behind him—they had been waiting to check in at the Hokage tower. The three following him were comparatively rookies, but even they must have sensed those signatures emerge. Gai, on the other hand, who must have been working out in Training ground 10 had nearly beat him there. He had stopped to fight the Mist traitor—with blue skin and a sword like that, he couldn't be from anywhere else.

The Mist traitor was the least of his concerns at the moment, however. That was Uchiha Itachi there, looking at him with a blank expression and a twelve year old slumped at his feet.

"Get away from my student."

He didn't think the Uchiha would harm her further—she was obviously unconscious under some sort of genjutsu and there would be no point to it. But then again, he'd worked with Uchiha Itachi seven years ago and it had never occurred to him that the solemn preteen would kill his entire family, so his predictive powers were in question.

The fight that followed made him wish he had been insane enough to pull a Gai and learn to fight by only watching his opponent's feet. The younger nin was obviously holding back, though Kakashi had no idea why. Sadism or mercy?

If he had been watching his opponent's face, he might have seen the moment when Itachi realized that he had succeeded in getting Danzo's attention. A group of ANBU that were almost certainly Root affiliated were approaching quickly.
'It is time to end this fight and go. I am sorry to do this, Hatake-san.'

His regret was definitely not on his face when the Sharingan whirred and he flickered out of sight, reappearing directly in front of the silver-haired man. It might have been a dangerous move to get within arm's reach if he hadn't ensnared the Copy Nin in the exact instant he forced eye contact.

________________________________________

Karin fluffed her cousin's pillow (it was simpler to judge their relationship that way than with the honest but vague 'distant relation of unknown connection'). She fought the urge to take another pain pill- she had a hell of a headache that just wouldn't go away.

'When I found family, I didn't think they would be this much trouble. She'd only just got out of the hospital a week before she went back in.' The redhead settled into the chair at Aiko's bedside and dug around in her canvas knapsack for the book she was working on.

Truthfully, she wasn't entirely sure why Aiko and her teacher were nonresponsive in the hospital. Whatever had happened was above her clearance- both in the regular military and as a hospital trainee. The notes on Aiko's clipboard were coded- she had peeked. At this point, she was less worried and more resigned. Aiko would undoubtedly wake up soon. In the meantime, she had homework to do if she wanted to show up that whiny little civilian-born brat who thought she was oh-so-superior to the outsider. Lousy brat, with her tiny reserves that made it easy for her to use scalpels and her big dumb face…

"Is there any particular reason for you to scowl at that book?"

Karin nearly fell out of her chair in surprise at hearing her teacher's voice. "Ah, Mito-sensei!" She sat up, nervously smoothing down her shirt. "No, I'm just a little frustrated," she admitted honestly.

The kind brown eyes of the woman who led her small group through lessons and let them shadow her at the hospital seemed to understand what she didn't say. The older woman crossed over to check the clipboard at the foot of the bed, scanning dispassionately. "I don't suppose you can read this, hmm?"

Karin shook her head, feeling a little foolish. "I can't." She admitted honestly. "No one would tell me why she's unconscious or for how long she will be. It's annoying."

"I see." Mito-sensei's eyes flickered to the open door, and then she seemed to shrug. "Your cousin is under a genjutsu. See here," the woman gently pushed up the eyelid. "She seems unconscious, but she's experiencing rapid eye movement, even though a scan here…" Her hand let the eyelid drop and passed mint green light over Aiko's forehead. "shows that the patient is not experiencing the REM cycle in any stage. Her mind is working as if she were awake. The patient's movement is constricted, but it is still possible to tell that she's experiencing significant stress. Tell me how, Karin-chan."

"Um…" Karin stood and leaned over her cousin, red eyes trying to look for clues she'd missed before. "She's sweating. Is that it?" She moved a little closer and lightly touched the tips of her fingers to the pulse point on her cousin's pale, naked throat. "Her heartrate is elevated, too."

"Very good. Possible repercussions of this state being sustained for a prolonged period of time?" The question was bland and impersonal, as if this was just another textbook hypothetical. Karin found that it helped her relax and truly consider the problem.

"Extreme mental strain and maybe even brain trauma," she said promptly. "She is essentially going without sleep for however long the genjutsu persists, meaning that her condition will deteriorate. The patient is likely to be irrational at time of waking."
"Astute as always, Karin-chan. That being said, it is impossible to know when she will wake up. In fact, it is a little worrisome that she hasn't already. If she does not regain consciousness naturally within ten hours, we will be forced to try to awaken her by disrupting the genjutsu manually." Mito made a mark on the clipboard, changed the iv, and then took down vital statistics. She touched Karin's shoulder lightly, pausing on her way out. "You should go home and get some rest, Karin-chan. You still have class in the morning. Someone will come for you when she wakes, as her only relative in the village at the moment."

"Hai," Karin agreed reluctantly, packing up her bag. "I suppose visiting hours are over, huh."

________________________________________
No Omake Today, because it is :

Ranty Time. 3

I received a long and uncomplimentary review to the tune of 'I am upset that things are not going as they did in canon to shape a character in the ways I see as most central to their character' and 'I can't possibly imagine a way for this to get better, so I won't read anymore', as well as criticisms of any number of things that the reader thought were out of character or poorly thought out.

I wonder if this person isn't alone, so I wanted to add some quick notes about those concerns. The note below also explains my philosophy on feedback from readers, so it might clear things up if you're interested.

Firstly, this is not canon. It's a shame that if the things about canon that you happen to like best or see as central aren't the ones I focus on as essential, but it's not a problem with my writing. It's a problem of incompatibility of what a reader wants and what the reader is reading. If the story I'm writing isn't one you want to read… exit or hold your peace, because I'm not forcing anyone to broaden their horizons. A lot of this story- the vast majority, really- goes on as in canon because the addition of one character doesn't change everything. Either ask or consider that it's A. not important to the story being told or B. happened as in canon and isn't being repeated because why would I spend time rewriting scenes we all know? Thank you.

Second point- readers don't have to be able to imagine how the rest of the story will go. That's the author's job. If my readers know where everything is going, then I'm doing a poor job as a writer. Although it does seem strange that it would be impossible to imagine a way for things to get better- the world is full of nearly infinite possibilities, and not one comes to mind?
Thirdly, to points like 'Hinata should be dead because Gaara would have killed her in the hospital' (paraphrase, of course)…
Well, I'm only going to rebut this one in the interest of conserving space, although there were others and the reviewer was incorrect about their assumption that I had no rationale for other decisions, like Naruto not killing Gaara in their fight. Simply speaking, there is no reason to believe Gaara would try to finish Hinata off in the hospital. He went after Lee to prove his strength after Lee actually managed to piss him off by harming him in their match. That made it personal. He hurt Hinata because it was amusing and he could, not because Hinata had managed to harm him.

I'm done with that now, but I would like to add something to anyone who made it through that block of text. I am more than willing to talk about potential problems or future directions or themes with anyone who sends a review or message asking about them. In fact, I actually like those conversations. If people express interest in a scene or something that I didn't show, I will quite likely include it later as an omake.

But anything that attempts to condescend or bully (and with quotes like "'man, look at how awful everything is with no hope for improvement'" and describing a character as a "sarcastic bitch", it's hard to interpret that in another way) will be dismissed.
In other words, fuck you and the saddled pig you rode in on, sir/madam.

Chapter Text

This is for everyone who worried that things were getting to be too much of a bummer. There's light at the end of the tunnel. Promise.
________________________________________
"I can't believe you," Sasuke hissed, disgust coloring his words. He valiantly resisted the urge to throttle his teammate. "I left you for two hours- two hours, and when I come back you're calling that woman 'Grandma' and have agreed to learn an S class jutsu in a week. I don't know if I think that you'll fail by blowing yourself up or that she will snap and kill you, but either way you're dead meat."

Naruto sniggered. "Wanna know something?" He ignored his teammate's eye-roll. "The technique she bet I couldn't learn… it's the one the old man started me on. I have a week head start on it." He grinned mischievously. "She's going to have to come back with us and admit that I was right about being Hokage." Sasuke looked spectacularly unimpressed.

"All I've seen you do is make a mess with water balloons," he said shortly. He smirked at his now-fuming teammate. He set down his chopsticks, more interested in baiting his teammate than choking down whatever the hell he'd been served. "The jutsu he's teaching me is much better." That arch tone always pissed his teammate off, even if he wasn't actually sure he believed his lightning technique was better than the Rasengan. 'Lightning is a better element than wind anyway.'

The blonde shoved his teammate, cheeks flushed red with anger. "Nuh-uh! Wind is way better than some stupid lightning bolt."
"You don't have to pretend you're not jealous. I know I'd be depressed if our places were switched." The brunette was back in his element, taunting Naruto. The blonde really needed to work on how easily he was provoked. He was helping the idiot. Really.
"Me too," Naruto snapped back. "Your hair is stupid!"

"Are they always like this?" Shizune sighed, chin propped up in her palm, half-heartedly watching the back-and-forth interaction. Jiraiya shrugged distractedly, one hand inching towards her rear end.

'Just… a little closer'.

Jiraiya yelped in sudden pain, falling off his stool at the bar where they had stopped for lunch. Shizune gasped, big dark eyes communicating disappointment with her mentor. "Tsunade-sama!" She really needed to reign in her impulsive violence. It was frightening the civilians, for one thing.

She stopped and wondered if scaring them just a little might get them some real food.

"Oh, lighten up." The older blonde scanned the menu, giving a lopsided smirk to the short blonde when he noticed her and scowled. The boy pushed away his empty dish and stalked off, leaving his fellow genin sitting awkwardly by himself. 'What an idiot. There's no way he'll master Minato's technique. Then I can be free and clear, and it won't even look like my fault. Shouldn't have made a bet with me, brat.' Tsunade accepted a glass of ice water and took a sip. "Where's the idiot going?"

Her old teammate gave the boy's back a distracted glance. "Who, the brat? He's doing his training outside of town. Hey, shortstuff," he barked. The Uchiha who had been staring into his soup as though it held all the answers to the universe bristled like an offended cat. "Go work with your teammate. Make sure he doesn't get carried away by wolves or something."
The other boy gave him a positively scathing look and stalked off with a prissy little hip movement. Tsunade didn't hide her snicker.

"Are you really worried about Naruto-kun?" Shizune asked, poking at her food with her chopsticks. She had thought she was used to cheap roadside food stands, but the place Jiraiya had led them to was in a league of its own. The older man shook his head, sending his ridiculous hair flying.

"Nah, he'll be fine. I just can't eat with that little stormcloud hanging around." He made a face. "I'd forgotten what a bummer Uchiha are."

Shizune sighed, pushing her food away mostly uneaten. 'I didn't think the kid was so bad. At least he has the excuse of acting his age when he picks a fight.' She eyed her two companions, who were already on the verge of coming to blows again.
________________________________________

The hospital room was cold, clinical, and smelled far too strongly of the bouquet that blonde Ino girl had dropped off, arranging blossoms into apparent perfection in between trading insults. Karin had no idea what the hell a 'hibiscus' was, but it sounded like fighting words to her. "This sucks." Karin gave in to her urge and threw her book across the room, letting it collide with the wall. It flopped over accusingly.

"I can't take it anymore!" she outright yelled. "That's it." She clenched a fist. "If you're too stupid to wake up when you should, I'm going to go home where I'm comfortable!"

That wasn't entirely true. With both of her cousins unavailable, she felt a little out of place. The Hokage had welcomed her, but he was dying. Karin's position in the village was precarious—whoever ended up in charge might not be so lenient and right now she was totally without friendly support. Maybe it was time to seek out some of the people her cousin had introduced her to, like the weird couple in the green spandex. Karin had seen enough to know that politically inconvenient people could disappear without a trace. If no one was looking out for her, she might be better off out of the village if nothing changed soon. She felt a shiver up her spine, but she ignored the fear. Her cousin was going to wake up soon.

"Karin-san," one of the attending nurses sighed, poking his head into the room. "What have we told you about volume in the hospital?"

Karin gave him a disparaging look. "She's in a coma," she said flatly. "So is her sensei in the room to the left, and the room to the right is empty."

"Yes, but I'd have to be in a coma not to hear you from the station," he mumbled sotto voice. When she frowned, he hastily added, "Please control your volume. I'm afraid you've been disturbing other patients."

"I was leaving anyway." She pretended not to see his relief, packing up, grudgingly taking even that stupid book she was starting to hate. The introductory section on poisons in her apprenticeship was boring her to tears. What was the point of memorizing the parts of hundreds of plants and their effects? She'd just have the injured party bite her. That'd solve the problem, right? When Karin had suggested that to Mito-sensei, the older woman had actually gotten a bit upset and sent her to work reading case studies. Apparently she shouldn't be letting strange people get their bodily fluids in her blood, especially if they were poisoned. Who knew, right?

"Oh! I am sorry!"

"Don't worry about it," Karin waived off the girl who had been outside the room when she opened the door. Then red eyes narrowed in recognition. "Hey, I know you."

The girl blushed, looking like a porcelain doll with those huge, unnatural looking eyes. "Ah, yes. Uzumaki-san, right? I was going to…" She trailed off, awkwardly holding up her bandaged arms as if to put up a barrier between the two. She cleared her throat. "I wanted to see how Aiko-san is doing," the girl finally managed to squeak.

'What is with this kid? I didn't think she was this much of a mouse when she was kicking the stuffing out of enemy genin.'
Actually, Karin had enjoyed a riot of a good time fending off the weak losers sent to retrieve samples of Konoha's bloodlines. Weeks of training under her cousin's supervision had paid off more than she'd realized. Plus, there was something really awesome about reminding herself that she wasn't just a useless little med nin. The little brunette girl had been cool too- at one point, she had knocked a boy out by kicking him in the throat, apologizing all the while. It was pretty amazing. Of course, the shrinking violet in front of her didn't have much resemblance to the girl in business mode.

Karin sighed, closing the door behind her. "She's still in a coma. We have no idea when she'll be up, although apparently some specialist is supposed to be coming here. Mito-sensei says that if this woman can't fix her, no one can." At the way the other girl fidgeted, something about her incredibly long convalescence finally made sense. "You too? Your hands must be bad if no one here can fix them. You busy?"

The girl looked up, surprised. "Ah, no. Not really."

"Alright then. You're coming home with me. I need someone to eat ice cream with and commiserate, and I bet you have as much to vent as I do." She started off down the hall. "Well?"

The little brunette hurried behind her, looking uncertain but reluctant to tell her no. "I don't think I'm supposed to leave the hospital, Uzumaki-san!"

"Pft." She waved a hand dismissively. "Why not? If Aiko wake up or if the specialist shows up, someone will get us. There's no reason to be miserable until then. I'll be sad if you don't come with," she threatened idly. This girl seemed like a bleeding heart. Her acquiescence implied that either Karin was right or that the girl had actually wanted to come with anyway. They traveled most of the way in silence, just enjoying the nice weather. The sunshine and healthy breeze were a marked change from the stuffy hospital.

They paused for a moment at the door, Karin struggling to pick out her key from inside her shorts pocket. The other girl seemed to be looking around, something strange in her expression. "You have a lovely home."

Karin took a second to examine Uzumaki Manor (Naruto's insistence) from an outsider's perspective. The garden out front was riotous, ignoring pretty much all conventions about tasteful decorating despite Ino's best efforts. It had been made with a little too much youth and orange in mind. The house itself looked fine, though. Relatively nondescript and clean. "Thank you. Uh, by the way." She glanced at her companion. "What's your name again?"

The girl smiled shyly up at her, slipping off her shoes in the entryway. "Hyuuga Hinata. Please, call me Hinata, Uzumaki-san."
Karin grinned in response, flipping on the lights and stuffing her feet into fluffy houseslippers. "Then you should call me Karin, Hinata-chan. Chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla? Naruto made something really terrible with packets of ramen seasoning if you feel adventurous."

________________________________________
Pain.

Pain to the point where the questions had long since become white noise. She had enough sense to be grateful for that. If she remembered what he wanted, she probably would have told him, even though she knew she had thought it was important not to tell.

Important even though it didn't make sense. He was gone, right? He didn't know what was going on in her genjutsu couldn't wouldn't know. Not the way genjutsu work.

Never even heard of such a thing. Ridiculous.

Then again, everything is ridiculous. And why would he do this if he couldn't find out? He must. Mustmustmust. Shush. Shhhhhh.

It's so light. Never gets dark, the only shadows come from the moon. Want to just sleep or die. It wouldn't make much difference at this point. Can't die in here. Everything is backwards, only black and white and redredred, killing doesn't make you die. Does living make you dead? No, that's not the parallel. Thinking is hard but I know this. Yes. Does giving life make dead? Healing.

I should ask.

Aiko coughed up blood in the illusory world (I know it's not real, not real, but just one quick question, yes) and casually asked something she didn't hear. Maybe he didn't either. "Pretty eyes," she tried, placatingly.

And then it changed.

The moon flickered, then was white. Ridiculous, the moon is made of cheese should be yellow. It painted pale light instead of dark. The ground became pockmarked with shadow instead of smothered in a thick coat. She became aware of a whimpering sound.

Itachi left in clinical light. She didn't have time to say byebye before he was replaced with the top half of a blonde woman, frowning.

The moon was gone.

Aiko frowned, not even trying to move a muscle in her hospital bed. Something was wrong. She had just been upright.

"Where did the moon go?" is that my voice? Raspy like a smoker.

"Hush," the woman snapped, doing something she couldn't see. "Get out of here, you idiots. If I want a circus I will personally come and find you clowns." She shone a light down, and Aiko yelped, moving for the first time to escape it. "Stop that. Follow the light. Are you with me? Good."

Bewildered but willing to accept this change in the situation, Aiko obediently followed orders. Orders were good. She was used to orders.

"How are you feeling? Any unusual pains?"

That was a harder question. "Unusual?"

"Oh, never mind." The woman gave a heavy sigh. "Do you remember what happened?"

"…What happened?"

"I will take that as a no." Blonde lady picked up a clipboard and wrote something on it, a tiny crease between her eyebrows. "Ask your sensei about it later, then. I don't know what the hell happened either. I'm going to go wake him up now. Any questions?"
Aiko shook her head. "You're really pretty."

Pretty lady barked a laugh. "You've got better taste than your brother." The woman left the room without another word, which stymied Aiko for a moment. She frowned—at the light outside the window, at the door that led to the hallway, and then down at her bare feet when she swung them over the edge of the bed and tottered across the cold tile to follow the older woman like an errant puppy. She was taking orders and hadn't been told stay.

Naruto and Sasuke didn't seem to understand that, though. The old man with them tried to stop her, putting an arm in front of the door the pretty lady had gone through.

"Hey now, miss. Shouldn't you be in bed?"

Well, that wasn't right. "Shouldn't you, old guy? I'm following." Then she stopped to frown, registering his face. "I remember you. With the ink the night Naruto scared the orphanage lady. Good job." She patted his head, and then ducked under his surprised arm and into the room.

Hey, sensei's here. Sensei was taking a nap, but the pretty lady was waking him up. Like Sleeping Beauty.

She stopped in the middle of the room. That wasn't quite right, was it? That would make Kakashi the princess. Aiko toddled over to investigate, wondering if her sensei's face was uncovered. Nope. Still. "I bet you're a pretty princess," she said loyally, watching as he blearily turned his one open eye to her instead of at the little light. Then she turned to investigate the sound of choking behind her. It was the old man. Aiko felt concerned. "Pretty lady? The old man sounds bad."

"That sounds about right," the blonde lady said distractedly, going through the same questions she had with Aiko. Then she jumped a little, turning to glare. "You should be in bed."

Aiko looked around the room. There was only one bed, but orders. " 'kay." She clambered beside her sensei, who looked downright alarmed. Then she went the fuck to sleep.

The next time she awoke was a good nine hours later, and she felt much more rational, despite the ache in her head. Her groan must have alerted someone, because the light flicked on and she discovered Karin's face uncomfortably close to hers.

"Ugh, haven't you ever heard of the Geneva convention?"

Karin frowned, sharing more of her morning breath when she asked "What are you talking about?"

"Nothing, nothing." She blinked blearily, drawing one hand up to wipe at her eyes and using the other to prop herself up to survey the room. It was relatively late in the evening—at least eight. She frowned. 'Definitely past visiting hourse.' She could understand Karin being here, but her sensei? It seemed just as strange that Naruto wasn't. Was he hurt?

"What's going on?" She flexed her muscles, feeling unusually weak. Aiko transitioned into a stretch, getting a feel for her body's deterioration. "How long was I out?"

Karin backed up to give her some space, stealing a glance at the other person in the room who had yet to speak. "Uh, a little over two weeks total. More recently, about nine hours since you first woke up."

Surprised, Aiko furrowed her brow. "I woke up before?"

"You were slightly more incoherent than usual," Sasuke drawled as he pushed open the door, closely followed by Naruto. "You helpfully informed us that Kakashi was a pretty princess."

"Neechan!" Naruto practically leapt onto the bed beside her, throwing his arms around her middle. "Are you okay? You won't believe what happened while you were out."

She absentmindedly patted his arm, snaking one of her own around his shoulders and squeezing reassuringly. "I'm fine."
"Don't tease, Sasuke," her teacher reprimanded lightly. Something about his posture seemed very serious. "Essentially, she went almost three weeks without sleep. I think she can be forgiven a little delirium."

"And you still haven't slept," a new voice said dryly. The figure it belonged to was ringed in light from the doorway, but easily identifiable as a woman. "Well boys, you did it. You dragged me back here and into four surgeries, three of which were brain operations. I hope you're happy." She sauntered in closer, revealing long blonde hair tied back in twin ponytails.

"Is Hinata-chan going to be alright, then?" Karin asked curiously, surprisingly Aiko. 'I didn't even know she knew Hinata.'
The reply was a withering glare. "Of course she is. Physical therapy is going to be a pain, but she seems to think it's a fair trade for the use of her hands."

Something connected in Aiko's brain, and she hastily sat the rest of the way up. "Tsunade-sama?"

"Yepp." Tsunade smirked at her, an expression that was all feline grace and trouble personified. "Although the last time we spoke, you called me 'Pretty Lady.' "

Instead of blushing, Aiko faked confusion, turning to Sasuke. "I thought you said I wasn't making sense when I first woke up, Sasuke-kun?"

"Don't flatter." The woman lightly hit her upside the back of the head, then took the opportunity to run a scan with fingers that glowed green. The reprimand didn't sting, light as it was. "You seem much better now. How do you feel?"

"Perfectly fine, but with a bit of a headache," she said honestly.

"Mmm." The light flickered into something a shade lighter. "This better?"

Aiko sighed contentedly. "Yes, thank you."

"Good." Then she hit her upside the back of the head, with some force this time. "That was for trying to fight an S-class criminal within village borders. Idiot. That's the most sickeningly Uzumaki thing I've ever heard of. We have plenty of Jounin and ANBU." She ignored the grumbling from Naruto and Karin's confused "Eh?" at the slur against their last name. "As your new Hokage, you are now forbidden to do anything so stupid. Clear?"

"Clear as crystal," she mumbled, feeling a little wronged. She hadn't had much of a choice.

"As for the rest of you morons… Naruto, Jiraiya was right. It's unsafe for you to be in the village. You're going to be leaving with him tomorrow, so say your goodbyes."

He stood up so abruptly that the bed moved back with a screech against the floor. "What? That's unfair!"

She grabbed him by the front of the jacket and practically snarled into his face. "Fair doesn't factor into it. Those men were looking for you, idiot! You want to lead them to your friends?" With that thoroughly unfair emotional manipulation out of the way, she added, "Besides, I'm your Hokage. Don't question my orders."

"Not Hokage yet," he mumbled a little bitterly, jerking out of her grip.

Tsunade turned her attention to her next victim. Sensing that this situation wasn't going to get any prettier, Karin gave a hasty wave, mumbled something about Hinata, and started edging towards the door. "And you, brat. What the hell were you doing, running off into ANBU the moment something went wrong? You had three students left. Clearly you aren't in your right mind. I'm putting you on light duty- no ANBU, no genin team, and no missions over B-class until you straighten out your head." Her tone changed to something more sympathetic. "You'll be meeting with Shizune to sort out the genjutsu aftereffects twice next week. If you try to skip, I'll assume you're trying to say that you don't think they're necessary for your little apprentice either."
Aiko cringed. 'Low blows,' she thought miserably while Tsunade tore her teacher apart.

"Hold on," Sasuke interrupted, looking pissed. "If Naruto is leaving with the old pervert and Kakashi can't teach genin, what am I supposed to do?"

Tsunade rolled her eyes. "That's not my problem right now. I'll figure it out. Surely there's some genin team out there who can take an extra."

"That's not good enough!" he snapped. He gave her his highest level bitch-face, the one that actually made Chuunin uncomfortable back in the Academy. Aiko had always suspected it reminded people of his father. "Weird or not, Kakashi's one of the best Jounin in the village. I won't be dumped on some idiot when I need to get stronger. You teach me."

"Like you could keep up with me," she scoffed, turning away and making for the door.

"Coward. Do you always avoid responsibility?"

Tsunade slowwwwly turned around, a shit-your-pants-terrifying smile on her face. "Fine. You can try my training for a week." She left. Sasuke smirked, and then seemed to realize what had happened. She could practically see the moment he wondered if he really had won or not. In the silence that followed, Aiko moved to squeeze her sensei's hand.

"You should get to bed. Training in the morning, sensei?" She gave him a hug around the waist. Mechanically, he fluffed her hair, already messy and floofed up in the back with bedhead.

"Well, that was pleasant." He backed away from his students and uncomfortably put his hands in his pocket. "I suppose this is goodbye for a while, Naruto."

"Yeah." The blonde hung his head and swallowed hard. When he looked up again, his expression was steel. "I'll get strong enough that it won't matter if those jackasses come around again."

"I believe it," their teacher said quietly, fondly. He didn't quite manage to look at any of them. "Well, look at the time! I should take my cat for a walk." None of them was really surprised by the shunshin that followed.

________________________________________

"Turns out she may have earned that title," Sasuke groaned, lethargically picking at his vegetables from the hot pot.

Aiko tried her best not to snicker, pulling out another piece of meat with her chopsticks. At her side, Karin actually managed a sympathetic look. "Medical stuff is way harder than it looks," she commiserated, looking irritatingly pristine next to her filthy and battered dining partners. They exchanged dirty looks. Karin obliviously tapped her fingers on the tabletop.

"I haven't learned a single jutsu," Sasuke said flatly, staring at the table as if he hoped it would leap up and kill him. "She beats me around for about an hour, gives me a list of exercises and then hits me with a book to read before the end of the day. Then she saunters away to drink. (Tsunade was enjoying her last days of freedom before the hat was officially hers.) The best part is that she occasionally sends a minion to attack me while I study."

'He really should have expected she would make his life hell,' Aiko thought fondly. She was cranky like that. Of course, she had been ridiculously full of herself since she had re-entered Konoha… but not without reason.

Tsunade had reason to be smug. She had managed to bring the third Hokage out of his coma the day before she had tried to help Hinata, Kakashi and Aiko. He was infirm and would likely never be able to so much as take the stairs at a decent clip again, but it was a small price to pay for his life. Granted, he was elderly and probably didn't have that much time left anyway, but better to die on his own terms than due to a former student's treachery. Once he caught up on the situation, he was actually happy enough to cry, Naruto had related solemnly. And why not? His village was saved, two of his wayward students had returned (if only for a while in Jiraiya's case), and he finally had a successor he could trust the village to. It was almost an unnecessary bonus that the near-death shock had thawed the worst of the hostilities between him and his only living family.
________________________________________
Omake

"What are you doing?" Ino screeched, rushing across the field of wildflowers to stop the travesty against nature she had barely caught in time. Lee blinked, confused, switching his gaze between her and the bouquet he had assembled himself.

"What do you mean, Ino-san? You told me to pick out flowers. These are the most youthful!" He gave her a thumbs-up. "I thought the colors were lovely, and I have a certain fondness for lotuses!"

"Lee… That bouquet…" She shook her head, struggling for words. When she started again, her tone was clinical. "Lotuses mean 'Love from afar', orange lilies mean 'hatred' and 'revenge'; and white carnations are for engagements," she hissed, not nearly as calm as she had been when they started. "What message, exactly, are you trying to convey? Because right now, you will terrify the person you inform that you love and hate them even though they don't know you because they wronged you, possibly by being engaged. Or possibly that you are now engaged, which may surprise them just a bit."

He examined his pretty pink, orange and white bouquet uncertainly. "Ano, Ino-san… do you think Gai-sensei's rival is familiar with flower language?"

She took a moment to process the implications of that statement, remembered how Naruto had loudly complained that the man seemed to know everything, imagined how said man would react, and gave an enormous, fake smile. "I bet you're right! When we're done here, I'll get you the perfect vase before we go over to the hospital."

'I have to remember to tell Asuma-sensei. He'll enjoy this.'

"Come on, Lee. Art and Crafts time isn't over. I still need hibiscus and spider lily. Then we can go to my house and I'll teach you how to arrange them."

Chapter Text

Karin had long since fallen asleep, mouth hanging open and the candles by her bed still flickering. Aiko sat in the near-darkness of her own room, knees up to her chest. The last few days had been hard. Not quite as hard as her one day with Naruto before he had left again for what would probably be a two year trip. The thought made her incredibly miserable. They had missed their birthday while he had been gone, so they had bumbled their way through an incredibly depressing birthday lunch, avoiding the conversations they should have had.

'Not entirely sure there's anything to say, anyway.' Aiko knew her brother inside and out, and he had a similar read on her. They both knew damn well that they were not going to enjoy the long separation, but there was no way to know how they would cope with it. They'd never been apart for longer than a few weeks while Aiko was on missions.

Aiko still wasn't in her right mind, frankly. If anything, she was getting worse. When she had first woken up, she had been disoriented and had managed to block out the trauma from the extended genjutsu. She had only begun to remember when she went to sleep again, waking up shrieking and sweating.

'At least I 'met' Jiraiya before they left this time,' she half-groused, half meant in seriousness. He had given her the strangest look- as though she wasn't what he had expected or something. He had been exactly what she expected, though, both from her foreknowledge and the uncomplimentary description provided by both boys. (Surprisingly, for once Sasuke had been just as vocal in his displeasure as Naruto). She had made the calculated decision not to tell either one of them that she actually read his books just yet.

Every night that she went to sleep, things just got worse. Unluckily, the night terrors hadn't really become an issue until after the second of her counseling sessions was done—the first day, she had barely been affected at all, and when she had checked back in on the fourth day, she was just starting to feel worn down.

Paranoia was a shinobi virtue, up there with 'stealth' and 'moral flexibility', but she had become so jumpy that it was getting hard to function.

'I wonder how sensei is doing. Is he having dreams like this?'

Kakashi-sensei had snapped so far back into his 'normal' behavior that she was caught between thinking it had to be an act or that he had gotten some really excellent drugs. Really, the only difference was that he was now pushing her much harder than he ever had before in training. (Then again, he'd never been able to be solely focused on her training, so the assessment may not have been fair). It had only been about a week and a half since the two of them woke up in the hospital. He had viciously leapt into improving both of their physical condition after their deterioration in the hospital, and then into working to improve rapidly. His sudden drive, now that she thought about it, probably meant that he was angry with himself about losing that fight so easily. A man who had made ANBU before he had stopped growing probably had not been concerned with drastically improving his conditioning in a long time.

'Then again, his casual, emotionally removed attitude was probably always an act to some extent.' Moonlight played with shadows through the trees outside her window and she shivered. Aiko unfolded her legs and dug out an old sweater, quietly slipping out of the house and into the night. Too late she realized her legs were still bare, but she stubbornly kept to the rock path through the backyard, trying to find enjoyment in the cool night air. It was utterly impractical for a shinobi to freeze up at the sight of the moon. A lot of her work was done at night. She had to get over it.

Her best assessment was that she now had a sliiiight tendency to get twitchy at the moon and a bit of insomnia. If she couldn't work through it on her own, she would go back to the hospital to talk to Shizune, she decided. But that wasn't her biggest worry.

She didn't remember most of her time in the Tsukyomi. There was no way to know what she had told Itachi. Karin might be in danger. She could have shared anything about Konoha's current state of political unrest or personnel (what little she knew, anyway).

Logic managed to calm most of those concerns—Itachi was loyal to Konoha. Even if he found out anything he couldn't through other channels (unlikely, as he was a resourceful person) he would be unlikely to misuse the information. If he knew about Karin, he would probably also find out that her power was unique and couldn't be used against him normally. Even if he didn't, the fact that he had not killed her when he easily could have indicated that he was willing to risk a possible threat to live. He was a bit of a soft touch.

Was Itachi enough of a soft touch to do absolutely nothing about any precognitive knowledge he may have gotten from her? She could have said anything in those seventy-two hours of pain. There was always the hope that he would have taken any shared information as the ravings of someone willing to say anything…

Putting all her hope on that rather unlikely outcome put a sick feeling in her gut. From what she knew, he was a nearly unrivaled professional and would have easily been able to get her to confirm information he would have known.

"There's nothing for it," she sighed. Aiko bent her legs and jumped all the way up onto a nearby home, using it as a bouncing pad to bound up to the higher levels of roofs that comprised the ninja speedway across town. 'May as well start training early. I'm not going to get back to sleep.'

________________________________________
In as far back as any of the recent Konoha graduates could remember, the streets had never been so full. The older generation, on the other hand, remembered a day even grander, before the Kyuubi had leveled half the village and when the population was considerably higher. Even festival days (rare as they were in a military village) paled in comparison. The spectacle was ridiculous—someone had managed to locate a sheet big enough to cover the new head on the mountain (produced by some doton master in a downright shockingly short period of time), all the civilians were in formal clothing while every active duty nin in the village wore their actual uniform for once, and candles burnt on every windowsill in contrast with the quickly setting sun.

The crowd jostled excitedly when the figure finally appeared on the balcony of the main administration tower overlooking the largest street, civilians screaming wildly. Most of the soldiers were more disciplined, but some of them were jumping up and down as well… especially when the Third hobbled up to stand at Tsunade's right, slightly behind her and waving reservedly.
Her speech was pretty standard stuff, concluding with the enormous sheet cascading off the mountain to reveal her face in a predictable theatric display. At least Aiko thought so, but the crowd really went wild for it. She rolled her eyes slightly, but clapped along good-naturedly. They had reason to be happy, she supposed, even if they were total saps to think that the pleasantries she was giving really meant much. They were just the sorts of things that politicians said. But Tsunade was a pretty damn stand-up person. She'd do alright.

Never particularly fond of crowds, she snuck away as soon as she possibly could without causing scandal. Above the crowd, Tsunade was similarly impatient to get back to the conversation she had been having with her predecessor and sensei, feeling her face start to hurt from the downright unusual smile she had been holding. The expression had come naturally for once—despite being a habitual grump, she had felt the crowd's exhilaration.

It slid right off her face when the balcony doors were safely closed and the office darkened. She found her way behind her new desk, waiting until Sarutobi managed to seat himself until she steepled her fingers in front of her face and gave him a stern, demanding expression that she had never had reason to give her old superior. "Now. What was it you were saying about information I had to have if I was really going to take the job?"

A muscle twitched in his neck, and the third Hokage felt his age settle around his shoulders again. "Only a few are privy to the darker parts of Konoha's history. I had hoped that these secrets would die with me, but my old friend Danzo…" he shook his head slowly. "has been causing trouble. Do you remember that in my first term as Hokage, not long before Minato's appointment I found out about his secret force within the ANBU?"

She waved a hand. "Vaguely."

He cleared his throat. "Yes, quite. I had it dissolved, but I have recently had cause to believe that he did not follow my orders. I let it slide longer than I should…"

"Damn right you did!" she snapped, scowling. "That's treason. You should have had his head! Are you telling me that a traitor has his own military faction? You are certain?"

"Yes…" Sarutobi tightened his grip on his walking stick, not appreciating her tone. His response was a little harsh. "Things are not so simple as you seem to think. Not only does Danzo have a great deal of respect and power on his own, but he has the support of the small council."

She gave him a slow blink in reply, unimpressed behind her folded fingers. "Koharu and Homura have been supporting a traitor?"
"They're my teammates," he protested, not liking where this was going. "They have provided guidance to the village for longer than you've been in service, my dear."

Her eyes narrowed dangerously, but for now she didn't comment. "Is there anything else I need to know? Any other dangerous secrets that might come around to haunt me?" Her words were almost mocking, but she was clearly serious.

He closed his eyes slowly. He had never wanted to share this particular shame with anyone, and if her reactions so far were any judge, Tsunade would not be pleased. With a failure like this in his past, did he really deserve forgiveness?
"What do you know about the Uchiha massacre?"

She blinked, surprised. "That was almost five years ago. I was long gone from the village. All I know is that some clan prodigy snapped and killed everyone but the little grump who came with Jiraiya to drag me home."
He exhaled slowly, looking away. "Concise, but not exactly correct. Uchiha Itachi was not and is not 'snapped,' as you so diplomatically put it. He executed the Uchiha clan on orders from Danzo."

The resulting "WHAT?!" broke through the silencing seals and insulated door separating the civilian secretary from the conversation. She jumped so suddenly that her elbow managed to knock over the bottle of ink on her desk, ruining the top papers she had been working on with the new schedule.

Back inside the office, Tsunade was white with fury. "Are you insane?" she roared, now standing straight up behind her desk. Her old mentor stared back at her with a practiced calm that she now thought looked a lot like an indication that he wasn't quite all there. "Why the hell isn't that man in custody?"

"The Uchiha were planning a coup," he explained calmly. "The extermination was planned as a last resort, but he gave the order too soon. By the time I knew, it had already been done. Uchiha Itachi is and always has been loyal to Konoha. His only request was that I keep his brother safe. I have done my best to ensure that. Itachi is now serving undercover in what seems to be an extremely dangerous organization of high-class missing nin."

She sat, feeling a rush of chemicals flooding her brain. Tsunade vaguely recognized she was in shock. Rubbing at her face, she searched for the appropriate words to explain what she was thinking. "Do you know why he jumped the kunai?"

Sarutobi's face tightened. "Danzo disagreed with my assessment that the situation could be resolved through other means."

"Of course he did." The youthful-looking blonde suddenly felt far too old to be taking up this job. "Sensei, what the hell are you thinking? That man, along with anyone who supports his treason, needs to go.' Tsunade hung her head quietly, swallowing hard. She had grown up hating the Uchiha. As a member of the dwindling Senju, it was almost a litmus test. But this… this was far more monstrous than the sick tragedy of a boy inured to horror far too soon killing his family in a fit, as she had thought was the case. The thought that her village had condoned this made her want to run right back out the gates and never come back. She had left because she felt this place was a death trap. Learning that her sensei had covered up this monstrosity for almost half a decade… a muscle twitched in her jaw. This didn't inspire confidence.

'No more,' she decided silently. The Third Hokage sat quietly, awaiting the tongue-lashing he knew was coming. 'I don't care that he doesn't want to publically shame his old friends. They have to go. Every last one of them.' She eyed her sensei, the man who she had respected. No more. 'He… it's a good thing I hadn't actually announced that I was planning on putting him on my new council.'

Instead of raging, her voice was ice. To a man who knew her, the disdain and anger were obvious. "It is long past time that the small council is replaced with more capable advisors. They were appointed almost fifty years ago, after all. Danzo, Koharu, and Himura will all be removed from their positions in the village hierarchy and replaced. You are going to help me make that happen with every last bit of power and support you have, or I will have this travesty made public and them all burned as traitors. That may still happen if they fight against their retirements. I am being merciful. If the clans knew about this, far worse would happen."

His jaw worked silently for a long moment. He had expected a lot of things, but that wasn't one of them. "That's impossible," he protested. "Such a thing has never been done!"

"The village is only what, four generations old," she pointed out coldly. "We aren't exactly talking about ancient traditions. Besides, this is a military dictatorship answerable only to the Daimyo. Do not think to tell me that something cannot be done."
Sarutobi slumped back in his chair, confounded by the logistics of what he had just been ordered to do by his Hokage (and at this moment, she was definitely his Hokage instead of his student). "We could ask them to retire," he suggested weakly.
She raised one eyebrow condescendingly. "And risk them resisting?"

"You could threaten them as charmingly as you have me," he said rather waspishly. Tsunade looked completely unrepentant.
"That's one option," she decided. "I don't like it, but it is noted. Anything else?"

"How does anyone ever get removed from power?" Sarutobi's fingers itched for his habitual pipe. "We make them want to leave, we remove their support by undermining their credentials or swaying opinion to a more suitable candidate, or we ensure that they are incapable of continuing." He frowned. "I do, of course, not recommend the last option."

"It's not off the table yet," she muttered darkly. With a flare of chakra, she turned off the privacy seals keeping the office locked away. As if summoned, an ANBU guard flickered into the room. "Go bring me Nara Shikaku and ANBU turtle," she said briskly.
Sarutobi protested vocally, holding up a hand. The ANBU actually stopped for a moment, reflexively obeying the Hokage he had served under all his life until now.

"I said go!" Tsunade barked. As the masked man left, she leveled a look at her old sensei that implied he was shit under her sandals. "You do not give orders to my ANBU," she purred dangerously. "Nor do you get to decide with whom I share information. I have been removed from village politics for almost a decade. I need a view I can trust." She leaned forward, eyes glittering. "Clearly, I cannot trust your judgment. You should have stayed retired the first time."

He had no reply for that particular bit of bluntness.

"You will remain while I explain the situation, just in case there is anything else that needs to be cleared up. Then you will be dismissed. I shouldn't have to remind you that you are strictly forbidden to utter a word of the discussion that happened in this office, but apparently you need to have the obvious spelled out with small words. I would suggest that you go straight home, as you will be accompanied by an ANBU I trust who will be under orders to immediately eliminate anyone that you breathe a word of this matter to." She gave him a cool smile that was distinctly devoid of any friendliness. He bowed his head to her judgment. It was her job, now.

When the two that had been summoned were both in her office (Turtle had been working with his genin team and had needed to change out of his leotard), Tsunade dismissed the other ANBU but gestured for Turtle to stand in the corner while she re-activated the privacy seal. It was most unusual, but neither man seemed to bat an eye.

Until the shame-faced Third Hokage got to the grand revelation, that was. He outright flinched away from the shocked horror on one of his most trusted follower's faces and the uncharacteristic stiffness in Turtle's posture.

"Shit," Shikaku cursed, running his hands through his hair in a stressed gesture. "Shit. I can't—this is all true?" At the nod of confirmation, he let loose a string of curses that practically dyed the air blue. "Why… Why are you telling me this? This knowledge could tear Konoha apart. If the clans knew that not only had the council approved genocide, but that the man who went behind your back to give the order not only escaped punishment but remained in a position of power for five years after the fact, there would be riots in the streets. There should be riots in the streets!"

Tsunade smoothly cut in for the first time since she'd prodded Sarutobi to start talking. "So that you can help me figure out how to get every last one of those bastards out on their ears," she hissed, just as angry. "ANBU Turtle, your current assignment is to shadow the former Hokage." Her lip curled. "This is both for his protection, as I assume he will be invaluable for fixing this massive fuckup, but to ensure that he does not speak a word of what was discussed here to any of his old friends, since apparently his judgment is far past questionable. You will be relieved by Wolf. Report back to me as soon as you have been relieved."

Turtle bowed deeply.

Tsunade gave her former mentor a scathing look. "Now you get the hell out of my office. I don't want to look at you."
A hysterical bubble of laughter escaped the Nara after Sarutobi left, impassive but shamed. "I just… shit. I can't believe this. The highest level of our government is filled with traitors." He paced in place, the infamous Nara intellect working full-tilt. "This isn't going to be easy, you know." Then he frowned. "Actually, with old dogs like these, easy might be the best way to go. All three of them are schemers. Publically announce their retirements and replacements and don't give them a chance to refute anything. None of them are likely to make a scene."

"They aren't likely to give up either," she pointed out darkly. "The two council members may well be loyal enough to stand down. But they may also see this as the act of a dictator and believe that the loyal act would be to oppose it. That's even excluding the possibility that they have gotten used to power and privilege. Danzo, on the other hand…" she trailed off, shaking with fury. "is definitely power hungry. He attempted to get inaugurated as the fifth Hokage. He has a private militia of unknown size and a history of outright traitorous action. He cannot be trusted to stand down."

Shikaku slipped his hands into his pockets, slouching slightly in thought. "It seems likely that an attempt to process him for his crimes will end badly," he pointed out, resigned. "He could send his forces against us or have them protect him. Danzo is wily. There is almost no chance we could get him locked away safely without exposing the crime. The Third Hokage might be lynched in the streets."

"Is there any reason he should escape the consequences of his actions?" she asked, bitterness obvious.

The man shrugged. "If what he mentioned about Itachi's current assignment is accurate, letting this information out would probably both end his life and lose our informant."

Tsunade cradled her head in her hands, wishing the world was as simple as she had thought it was only two hours ago when she was cheered by hundreds. She had promised those people that they were under her protection. It had seemed a little easier without an immediate crisis. Her mind went to that skinny Uchiha brat who she had been beating around the training field. The kid actually wasn't so bad—a little glum, but he had a quick wit and an impressive work ethic. Training him hadn't been terrible, but she hadn't honestly considered taking him on as an apprentice. After all, her specialties wouldn't exactly be the first choice for a self-proclaimed avenger.

Then she had a realization and groaned out loud, confusing the poor stressed Nara in front of her desk. 'I can't very well push him off onto some rookie team now. Not only do I feel bad for the little shit, but he has to be guided away from his goal of killing his brother, who happens to be innocent. Gently. By someone with subtlety, understanding of clinical psychology, and access to the information that his brother is innocent. It has to be me or possibly Shizune. I can't begin to trust anyone else with this. I'm hesitant to put it on poor Shizune's shoulders. He can't possibly find out the truth, not yet.' Poor thing might actually have a psychotic break if she broke it to him suddenly.

"We are going to write a letter to the Daimyo," she decided, returning to the real world. It took Shikaku only a moment to catch on.

He nodded. "I see. Ensuring that our version of events is the one that reaches his ears first, to prevent later problems?"

"You're going to help me compose it, as well as escort it to him personally with your team. I'm pulling all three of you onto the active duty roster for this assignment." She leveled him with a steady stare. "I cannot trust this letter to conventional means, you understand, nor can I unilaterally trust my ANBU now." She winced at that thought. "Kami only knows how I'm going to sort this monstrosity out when I cannot trust my own forces."

"That should be next," Shikaku agreed, gaze drifting over her shoulder to fixate longingly on the blue sky outside. "We should know what kind of forces Danzo has at his disposal before we commit to a course of action."

________________________________________

Sasuke still looked a little shell-shocked when he met Aiko and Karin for morning conditioning a few days after the inauguration, a tradition that had somehow endured even without half of the original workout group. Karin finished the warm-up run first and folded straight over in half, touching the ground between her feet with her elbows.

"What's wrong, Sasuke-san?" She rolled back upwards and stretched straight upwards, palms facing up and fingers interlocked. The other two joined her for their own flexibility stretches. Aiko looked at her male companion, curiously. He hadn't been spending much time with them lately.

"Tsunade offered to take me on as an apprentice."

The girls froze, staring at him with wide eyes. "W-what!?" Aiko tried to process that information, giving a little laugh. 'Well… Sakura isn't around to take the job.' She winced. 'In a way, it makes sense.' He seemed unsure as to what he should think. 'Tsunade has been gone for so long that she could be making a politically charged decision to connect with the younger generation,' she theorized. 'It's probably not a coincidence that her new apprentice is from the clan-heir age group. It could smooth things over for her to have the adulation and some semblance of a personal connection to the age group who will be her new Chuunin and Jounin. Most of the people she worked with are either retiring or leaving active field duty.'
"That is so cool," Karin gushed. Aiko jerked in surprise. She'd forgotten that she had yet to respond.

"It is pretty awesome," she agreed, swiveling to face him completely. He grunted, stretching one arm behind his head. "Are you going to take her up on it? I mean, wow. Getting trained by a Sannin… Well, I guess it may be slightly more prestigious than getting trained by Kakashi-sensei." She took a moment to hope this wasn't one of the days when he was lurking around to make sure they worked out, not bothering to try to check. He could hide from her. "Not by much", she grudgingly allowed. "He's really awesome."

Sasuke gave an irritated sigh, frowning slightly. "I know that she's powerful, but I never saw myself learning healing," he scowled.

'He's probably wondering if working with Tsunade would prepare him to kill Itachi,' Aiko realized. 'It's certainly not the traditional specialty for someone who plans to hunt an S-class missing nin. Then again, Tsunade is probably one of like six living people outside of the Akatsuki who could hope to fight Itachi. You could argue either way.'

Karin snorted. "What's so wrong with that? No one knows how to take a person apart like a medic does, and Tsunade is the best. Besides, that's not all she can do."

"Ugh," she groaned inappropriately loudly at a sudden and unpleasant thought. The other two turned to look at her questioningly. Aiko shrugged. "I just imagined Sasuke uprooting a tree and swinging it at Kakashi-sensei with Tsunade's super strength one day when he shows up to practice late with another lame excuse. 'I got lost on the road of life,'" she mocked.
The boy appeared to seriously consider that, a smile tugging at one side of his lips insistently as he started his pull-ups, easily ducking his chin above and below the metal bar between two wooden posts. "He'd deserve it."

The girls joined him, with varying levels of enthusiasm. Karin had a look on her face that implied she would skip this part of conditioning if no one was there to peer pressure her into it. The other two pretended not to hear how rough her breathing got, transitioning to holding their chins above the bar.

"Just two minutes, right," Karin huffed, quickly turning red.

"Yepp," Aiko responded, letting her feet wave slightly in the air. She closed her eyes to concentrate, hating the way her arms began to burn before she was done. "ugh." She let herself fall to the ground, landing in a slight crouch.

"I think I like the idea," Aiko said thoughtfully. "You and Naruto can be like the new Sannin."

"Leaving you to be Orochimaru," Karin giggled, stepping blissfully over the elephant in the room that Aiko wasn't really the third member of that original team. "I don't think that parallel really works out."

"Makes sense, you're the creepy one," Sasuke taunted quietly.

Aiko flushed. "Ah, no. That's not what I meant. I think that has to be Anko. She's the only one with the snake contract now," she pointed out. Sasuke gave her a strangely considering look.

"The only one…" He mused. "Does that mean that the contract reverted to her when he died?" Aiko shrugged. 'Probably.' He seemed to take her shrug as affirmation. "She probably should have an apprentice sign it," he pointed out calmly. "Otherwise it'll be lost when she dies."

________________________________________

Miles and miles away, safely back in one of many temporary bases in Rain country, Itachi allowed himself a moment alone to try to puzzle through the baffling information he had received at the end of the two genjutsu he had cast in Konoha. Judging by the fact that the two had been released within an hour's time, he was almost certain that the Sannin Tsunade had returned to Konoha. It was surprising that Pein had yet to find that out, or if he had he had yet to share the information. Generally Pein seemed to hold to the policy that information was a form of power that should be shared when relevant. It certainly was relevant now, given that he had recently ordered Itachi and Kisame to investigate the rumors (that Itachi knew to be fact) that the Kyuubi jinchuuriki was now in Konoha's active forces.

Itachi knew that the jinchuuriki was now a genin because he was on his otouto's team, under the Copy-Nin. He had a burning desire for more information about his otouto, but had managed to avoid bringing Sasuke up when he tortured his genin teacher. His willpower had been pushed too far by curiosity, however, at the red-headed girl who had mistaken him for his otouto.

'She called him her kohai,' he remembered. That was strange. Sasuke had always been proud, in the way that only a son of the Uchiha could be. The girl had looked to be about his age. Why would Sasuke allow a girl his age to claim mentor status? Itachi masterfully turned his mind away from his wistful desire to see his brother again. (Was he tall? Did he still have mother's eyes? Was he getting strong enough to be safe from Madara's machinations?)

The information he had obtained from the two released genjutsu painted an incomplete picture of the people his otouto was closest to in Konoha. One of them was unsurprising, although it was painful to remember torturing someone he still held a great deal of respect for.

The other… 'Is the girl insane? A spy of some sort?'

Those two options were exponentially more likely than the initial conclusion he had gathered from the utter nonsense she had garbled over the 72 hours in-world that the genjutsu had lasted. Unfortunately, they didn't fit the information. All he had wanted was to know how she had sensed his presence, and that seemed to be the only thing she was not willing to talk about.

He had made the mistake of asking her if she knew who he was and what he was capable of doing to her –apparently, his genjutsu self had an embarrassing flair for the dramatic—and had been rather surprised to hear accurate babble about his career, participation in but not masterminding of the massacre, and his current partner in the Akatsuki… which turned to an outpour about other members. It was almost all information he had shared with Jiraiya, of course, but he would never have told any of that to some Chuunin stationed in Konoha.

There was absolutely no way for her to have the information she'd had. Some of what she had said made no sense at all—he was certain that Orochimaru was dead (even though he'd nearly had heart failure when he processed the information that Orochimaru had tried to use a mind-control seal on Sasuke). But there was no earthly way he could imagine for her to know that Pein was not the leader of Akatsuki.

'Clumsy, in addition to whatever insanity she possesses,' Itachi mused, completely ignoring the fighting going on between his fellow Akatsuki nearby. 'If she holds information like that, she should be able to protect it. Had I been anyone else, I would go back to kill her.'

Being who he was, he did not mind having someone else know that Madara was a threat. But how? That was troubling. The Sharingan had been known to give predictive powers that relied on probability and minute cues that the human mind didn't consciously notice, but to the best of his knowledge there wasn't truly anything that could allow someone to predict the future. Yet she would have to be a seer in order to know what she did, unless there was something very large that he was overlooking.
'Sasuke… you have fallen in with strange people.' A Jinchuuriki, the Copy-Nin, and that strange girl who knew too much… 'This will require further investigation,' he decided grimly, packing for an extended mission. It was time to find an old contact.
________________________________________

OMAKE- the cat (who has been offstage for far too long)

"Mraow." Smaug stared down his houseservant, tail flicking slightly. The redhead gave a groan, slumping over on the couch where she had been half-watching a cooking show and trying to nap.

"Oh come on, I just let you out. Pick one. Are you a jungle cat, or a futon cat. You can't be both."

Karin snorted, pushing a messy strand behind her ear with her pencil. "Please don't tell me the cat is winning psychological warfare with you again."

Aiko scowled at her housemate. "I'm smarter than the cat." She picked the fluffy feline up around his middle and cuddled him to her chest, playing with his paws. "Aren't I," she crooned. "Hmm, Mr. Pretty Paws?" She crinkled her nose. Smaug looked thoroughly unimpressed.

"Ugh, gross. Aiko, you're going to die alone covered in cats. You need to get a boyfriend." Karin flipped the page of her incredibly boring medical text, red eyes and sharp mind operating independently of her mouth.

"I'm thirteen," the other girl shot back, letting the cat flop off her lap and then getting to her feet. "I have a while yet." She propped open the front door, knowing that it would be easier than catering to the cat. Smaug would catch and kill any bugs that flew in anyways.
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edited on 12/22/2013; same day as original posting. I should probably start re-reading these before I post, but waiting is just so hard.

Chapter Text

"You're kidding, right," Kakashi said flatly in a way that implied he had little hope his Hokage was joking and was instead banking on using his one uncovered eye to light her on fire. White Hatake chakra had been known to have some unusual effects, after all.

No such luck. Despite his best efforts, Tsunade remained stubbornly not-on-fire.

The two kunoichi who had been paired with him for the mission tried not to snicker, but the woman behind the desk made no such concession to his dignity. Tsunade smirked up at one of her top ninja, fully prepared to send him on a mission far below his caliber in a relatively transparent attempt to force him to calm his nerves after what she classified as a minor breakdown.

"I don't joke, Hatake-chan. Have your cute little apprentice help you with your hair. Don't worry, it'll all wash out when you get back and apply the second bottle." He frowned down morosely at the dark red hair dye in his hands. "If you weren't so distinct looking, this wouldn't be necessary," she claimed with far too much enjoyment in her voice and no apparent notice for the irony of that statement coming from a woman with an incredibly rare hair color and breasts that had actually inspired several songs and stories (not counting Jiraiya's complete works, which Aiko was relatively sure were all one long love letter to Tsunade's chest and the woman herself to a lesser extent). "Besides, no one would believe a man with white hair and a woman with purple hair had a red-headed child."

"It's silver," he muttered rebelliously.

"Maybe I should color mine too," Aiko added cautiously. "My hair is far lighter than Anko-senpai's or that dye."

Tsunade gave her a lazy once-over, eyes darting between her features and those of her 'parents'. "You'll be fine, brat. We don't need to match exactly. That's almost as suspicious as not being in the same color family. Now shut up." She turned her attention back to the adults in the room. "As I was saying, you three will be posing as a family on vacation. A certain noble client has become concerned that there is an informant in their household, passing compromising information through their hotel and spa."

She rolled her eyes at the thought, adding in a rather scathing tone that, "The family is concerned that their attempt to marry into some other noble family will be sabotaged. A lot of money is on the line here—if this merger happens, our client will be getting a big fat wedding present in the form of a diamond mine." (Anko choked on the bamboo dango skewer hanging out of her mouth, eyes popping out in surprise) Tsunade grinned at the shock on the other two kunoichi's faces, pursing her vividly red lips prettily before she continued "It's your job to make sure that doesn't happen, or that if it does the person who doesn't isn't passing the gossip through the spa. Anko, make sure Hatake unwinds. This mission should be well within the capabilities of a team far less talented than you three, so I expect there to be no screw-ups."

"Hai, Hokage-sama." She shifted her weight to one hip, examining her cohorts. "Would it be acceptable for me to use henge to look a little older, or are we concerned about enemy nin?"

Aiko tried not to show amusement at that thought. 'Kakashi-sensei could pass for my dad in a pinch, (a young, hot dad, just barely old enough to be the father of a 13 year old) but Anko is definitely too young to be my mother. She would have been nine or ten when I was born.' She shuddered.

"Henge will be fine." The Hokage shrugged, shuffling around in her desk. "This is all civilian in-fighting. If they had hired ninja to get that information, those nobles wouldn't know anything was wrong. Any other questions that your mission brief didn't answer?" At the negative answers, she nodded decisively. "Good. Now get the hell out of my office."

As it turned out Kakashi-sensei did not want or need any help with his hair, showing up only half an hour late at the gates with pretty reddish hair that shone like Kankuro's in the sun and a slouched, defensive attitude that suggested a pout was hidden underneath his sky blue scarf. Aiko tried not to cringe while the Chuunin gate guards gave double and triple takes, Izumo gawking with his mouth hanging open at the moment he seemed to figure out who the fit redhead he'd been checking out was. Seeing her teacher out of uniform was strange enough, but Kakashi was wearing an eyepatch. 'I know he has to have his funky red eye closed, but… that looks terrible.'

Unfortunately they had to walk for even the first part of their journey like civilians instead of traveling at ninja speeds and then getting into cover. At least their destination was relatively close within Fire Country.

All three of them were dressed as relatively well-off civilians for the trip, packed lightly with minimal weaponry. The two kunoichi were in yukata. Aiko tried her best not to stare or laugh—it was hard to believe that Anko had actually owned a butter yellow yukata with green and blue butterflies and Lotus blossoms. The fabulously big, extravagant bow on the accompanying pink obi dwarfed her tiny frame. Her own clothing was a little plainer. It was almost entirely a faded purple with pink threading that suggested a vine pattern. In other words, it was suitable for travel, but still girlish enough to make her look like less of a threat.

'Maybe Anko has to wear ridiculously feminine clothing to get the same effect,' she hypothesized, carefully not spending too long looking at the older kunoichi and her carefully henged visage— an incredibly subtle confection that included tiny pore imperfections that suggested the use of makeup to compensate for age.

When they stopped for the night after and she looked at her teacher across the campfire, she'd had enough. "Stand still, tou-san."

Kakashi looked warily at her when she invaded his personal space with a brush. "What the hell are you doing." He stepped back defensively.

Aiko gave her fellow kunoichi exaggerated puppy eyes. "Kaa-san, help me. He can't wear that eye patch. He looks like a reject from an off-Broadway production of Pirates of Penzance." She looked a bit baffled, but Anko eyed up their sole male companion. Other than the eyepatch, he looked good. The role they were playing was a family of relatively new-monied civilians, so he was wearing black slacks and a blue shirt under a thigh-length coat. Some of the very wealthy families wore expensive traditional clothes regularly, but new money was often accompanied by foreign clothing. The role he was playing probably didn't include any rough accidents that would cause the loss of an eye.

"I don't know what the hell the kid said, but she's right. It looks terrible, anata," she drawled. "Be a dear and let her play with your hair."

"Just keep your eye closed." He sighed, but obligingly went limp and read his book with his dark gray eye and kept the other pressed closed when she tugged off his eyepatch and gave it a scathing look before tucking it into the front pocket of his tan coat. Then she wondered why he had to be dressed so warmly. It was only fall. She tried to run her fingers down his scalp and got them caught almost immediately. The feeling of his hair between her fingers set the hair on the back of her neck up- it was so tangled that he couldn't possibly have done anything with it in at least a week. At least it was soft.

'Does he back-comb? How on earth did he dye his hair? Did he just fill the sink with dye and dip his head in? Because this is definitely not hair that has been combed in the last week. Oh god, did no one teach him to comb his hair? He was an orphan at like six, wasn't he?' She attacked his hair with her brush, forcing it to obey gravity and fall over his forehead instead of arcing up, arranging it to cover his Sharingan eye and so that a few strands brushed over the rest of his forehead. It didn't want to obey, but she forced it. He patiently endured her attentions in the long-suffering manner he had adopted after about a year of trying to avoid physical contact when stuck with a little girl who liked to hold hands as a student.

"That's better." Anko pulled out her own dirty yellow book, kicking back on her bedroll. "Come to bed, love." Their team leader groaned. Aiko pouted that she couldn't have brought her own book.

The mission dragged on and on as they walked to the neighboring town where they actually hired a horse-drawn carriage to take them to the spa, (an extravagance that only the ridiculous, pretentious people they were portraying would be able to indulge in) and Aiko couldn't help but pout. She didn't complain aloud, however, because there was really no big reason to be upset. The missed training time could be made up for at home, and the spa itself was lovely. She received her own room with an adjoining door to the love suite where Anko had gigglingly dragged Kakashi with a deceptively delicate, pale hand on the first night and then proceeded to have what appeared to be an amazing time making theatrical noises. (The boy who had carried the luggage Anko had managed to buy upstairs had made an 'icky' face and not returned since).

She knew why they had gotten such a frivolous mission, of course. Posing as a family was the least conspicuous way to go on a vacation, and despite the likelihood that nothing dangerous would happen it was always possible that when nobles and money were involved, so were enemy ninja. The two adults with her were both highly skilled, and Aiko herself was capable enough to hold her own against average opponents. Although it seemed as if it might be a waste of an elite like Kakashi, the mission would also hopefully give him time to stabilize and repair some of the recent trauma. As far as Aiko could tell, Tsunade was the type of person who would take good care of her soldiers—not necessarily because she was soft, but because it was efficient to do so and she saw no use for either stupidity or cruelty.

Really, the woman was scarily perfect to be a military dictator. Assuming one could forgive her for the alcoholism and fits of violent temper, at least.

While undercover and unable to talk shop, avoid each other, or do shinobi type things, Aiko was amused to discover a strangely amiable chemistry between the three of them. Anko's undercover behavior varied the most from her normal actions. She was still a little raucous, but in a much less trigger-happy way and she gleefully recounted the scandalous interactions of their imaginary neighbors (especially that Hashimoto woman down the street who actually did her own gardening, can you imagine?). Aiko was going to have a talk with Anko when they returned to Konoha about her neglected talent as a writer—the woman had a knack for storytelling and a vivid imagination.

On the other hand, Kakashi-sensei's chosen cover wasn't actually that different from his usual behavior, with the exception of his deference to Anko. Though he was nominally in charge of both the mission and in the family they were portraying, Kakashi seemed content to slip into a slightly hen-pecked and affectionately long suffering role, allowing Anko to bully him into stopping at what seemed to be every 'adorable' tea shop in the Fire Country and hinting at a gruff fondness for his 'daughter', but mostly remaining as silent as he usually was, occasionally patting his hip sadly as if reaching reflexively for the book that he had not been able to bring with him now that they were in public.

For her part, Aiko took every opportunity to snuggle up to her sensei, both as part of her cover as a doting daughter delighted to get to spend some time with her slightly distant businessman father and in service of her private belief that her sensei really needed a lot of hugs. Anko leapt into the fray as the parent Aiko must have inherited her touchy qualities from, which meant that Aiko got to bask in hours of hair brushing and really silly braids and amateur geisha hair-dos.

"Mummy," Aiko called, clicking her knuckles against the door to the other two nin's room. At the muffled reply, she pushed the door open and stepped through, trying not to look too enviously at the luxurious suite. Her teacher didn't look up from his position on the bed. He was lying on his back with an Icha Icha book up to his face, reading desperately as if to save up enough happiness to get him through the rest of the book-less day. The older woman walked out of the bathroom still slipping on an earring, face rouged and in a fluffy pink bathrobe dotted with rhinestones at the hems. Aiko tried not to choke with laughter and wildly hoped that Anko would take it home and incorporate it into her wardrobe once this mission was over. The amused look on the other girl's face indicated that she had caught the amusement.

"Oh, I'm sorry darling, I'm running a bit late," Anko pouted, tugging open the folded closet door and extracting a silver and green yukata. "I'll be ready in just a moment." She sailed back into the bathroom and clicked the door behind her. Aiko pressed her lips together and breathed in deeply through her nose, struggling not to let any amusement show. The older kunoichi had really taken to her role as a trophy wife. The role worked for their investigation, however.

She perched on the edge of the bed, being careful not to wrinkle her yukata. When the surface dipped under her weight, one visible gray eye slid to her in what could have been a brief show of despair. Then she blinked and he was focused on his book again as if he'd never stopped. Aiko rolled her eyes and swatted playfully at his hair like a kitten, enjoying the way it bounced back. His hair was like a living thing—it had only taken one day for it to be nearly as tangled as it was when she'd first fixed it. When Anko was finally done primping, the two kunoichi would be taking advantage of their frivolous roles in order to investigate one of the employees that their client was worried about—a woman who, by all accounts, was a fabulous manicurist.

Life was pretty good.

________________________________________

"I haven't been out in the field for months," Inoichi grumbled, keeping an easy pace with his long-time teammates. Despite the long break in Interrogations work, he had worked with the other two men for so long that there was no chance he would forget the rhythm of travel they fell into or slip out of formations they had developed over twenty years ago. "Has it always been so cold outside?"

Choza chuckled. "You're getting out of shape, old man. I didn't know that interrogations work made you so soft. Don't complain." He made an extra large leap, playfully shaking the tree he landed on. The hefty Akimichi Clan Head had also been on the inactive roster for missions like this, due to clan obligations and the never ending politicking of his position, but he was delighted by the change in routine instead of inconvenienced. Shikaku rolled his eyes, wishing his teammates were a little more mature for once. They noticed his poor attitude, slowing down and dropping out of the trees to approach the Daimyo's home on foot. It was considered rude and possibly hostile to sneak up, after all.

"What's your problem, Shikaku? Is something wrong?" Inoichi probed, dusty blue eyes searching for signs. Signs of what, Shikaku didn't know, but he didn't appreciate the scrutiny either.

His long-time teammate scowled half-heartedly. "Don't pry, you miserable old gossip. You know I'd tell you if you could. You'll know soon anyways."

The blonde knew him too well to be put off by the rudeness, merely shrugging. He dropped the subject- classified was classified- and merely protested being referred to as a miserable old gossip. While the two lanky men bickered, Choza explained their presence to the samurai guarding the traditional gates and had a message sent to the Daimyo asking for a reception. He placidly returned and explained to his companions that they would have to wait a while.

When they were finally led in for an audience, the other two clan heads fell in line behind the Nara. He wasn't their team leader, precisely. They were an interesting team in large part because they were all alpha personalities but seamlessly traded places in the chain of command hierarchy to put the most suited man in charge. At the moment, that was Shikaku, who had all the information about this mission and about what Tsunade had hoped to accomplish by sending them here. It was no coincidence that she had sent three clan heads on this mission. Aside from the fact that it was more respectful to the Daimyo, they were each a pointed reminder that Konoha's strength was in its clans, and each man represented at least a hundred shinobi. It wasn't a threat, precisely, but it might make him leery of dismissing the rights of the large clans in favor of three seventy year olds.

The audience itself made Shikaku wish that Tsunade had allowed him to brief his teammates. He knew why she hadn't—it was her intention that the Daimyo would be able to see the visceral reaction of disgust and anger that the news caused in his teammates. Knowing not only how the clans would react to the news and that too many people to be easily silenced knew about the council's murderous misbehavior would probably factor into his decision.

Granted, Tsunade probably also knew the three men well enough that she had planned it this way so that they had burnt off the worst of their anger before they got back to Konoha and didn't irritate her so much as they might have otherwise. Shikaku admired the woman for her unique mix of laziness and pragmatism, in a terrified 'I-would-run-away-from-her-if-only-I-could' sort of way.

Shikaku knew better than to be surprised or disappointed by the non-committal response the Daimyo gave to the information. The man would almost certainly confer with his most trusted advisors, weighing the most politically viable and intelligent options before weighing with anything so petty as his personal opinion or human decency. The news delivered, the three clan heads backed out in bows and left the capital in a rush. Shikaku consciously did not look at his companions, clenching his jaw imperceptibly.

Choza was the one to break the silence. "When did you find this out?"

Shikaku answered the man honestly, explaining that Tsunade had summoned him to her office before he had even made it home from her inauguration.

The large man gave a low whistle, eyes fixed straight ahead at the treetops they were rushing through. "That's sick," he said with finality and a grimace.

On the other side of their triangle formation, Inoichi agreed quietly, thinking of his own family. "It's horrific," he said lowly, rumbling from his chest at an unusually low pitch. Pale lips pressed together unhappily, and then he gave a derisive laugh. "I almost wish it weren't true or that I didn't know. I don't care what Fugaku was up to. What Danzo ordered was monstrous far beyond the pale." He did his level best not to think of the mass funeral that had been held and all the tiny coffins involved. It had been a sight that sent chills down his spine— at the time he had been a full-grown man who had killed dozens of people in his life, and was still shocked wordless at the sight.

"It's obscene," Shikaku agreed curtly. "I want everyone involved or complicit out on their ear."

"But that can't be done without ruining that poor boy's deep cover," Choza worked out in a displeased rumble. "He'd be dead before the day was out if the Hokage made this public knowledge and tossed them out on their wrinkled asses like they should be." The Nara acknowledged his logic with a nod.

Inoichi sniffed imperiously and frowned. "Doesn't mean they can get away with this," he muttered darkly, mind already working on possible solutions.
________________________________________
The Fifth Hokage was the strangest human being that Uchiha Sasuke had ever met, and that included his genin sensei. Oh sure, at first glance she seemed relatively normal in comparison to people like Kakashi or his Eternal Rival, but after he had spent a few weeks in her company regularly it became quite clear that she had even less impulse control than Naruto did.

"They probably should have skipped the middleman and made Shizune the Hokage," he muttered to the civilian secretary when he dropped off her coffee. Keiko snorted indelicately, then straightened, mortified by the slip in professionalism, apparently ignorant to the fact that she had been hired precisely because she had no chance of outfoxing any of her shinobi coworkers. "She can't hear," he reassured quietly, trying not to smirk. Tsunade had fired every office worker in the tower to start over with an entirely new staff that she vetted personally, so they were all still a bit jumpy and mildly concerned that another round of firing was on its way.

Personally, Sasuke approved of Tsunade's apparent paranoia. For the moment the personnel switch was causing a lot of extra work—no one really knew the nuances of the old system—but it would be worth it to ensure information security. Once the old employees had made it through her security system, they would all be offered new employment in other office buildings, so he didn't feel particularly sorry for them. One man who had sold information had already been ferreted out by the interrogators and was cooling his heels in prison, so obviously the paranoia had been justified.

Besides, picking up slack in things like getting drinks for the three women who were habitually in the office (the secretary, Tsunade, and Shizune) didn't bother Sasuke. He left for lunch every day anyways, so it wasn't much of a hassle.

His apprenticeship was rather eclectic. He still did his physical conditioning and speed training with Aiko (and now Karin) in the early mornings, but Shizune had taken it upon herself to teach him to use her two favored weapons, senbon and a sword. He did chakra control exercises and assigned reading (both medical and political, to his displeasure) on his own, but his actual mentor did step up at least once daily in order to beat the hell out of him in a taijutsu spar (one of the few excuses Shizune would accept for taking a break from paperwork and boring meetings) or watch him demonstrate the next stage of the medical techniques she was having him work through. He wasn't overly pleased about learning medical jutsu, but they were necessary precursors to Tsunade's unique fighting style—near invulnerability, the ability to store enormous amounts of chakra, and the strength to break through any defense sounded pretty damn good to him.

Unfortunately, there was also a lot of busywork involved. Since his security clearance had been upped, he was now available to go through all sorts of records that needed to be updated. After the disastrous Chuunin Exams that had done massive structural damage and taken a big chunk out of their active reserves, the Jounin who would normally do that sort of thing were spending more time in the field. Even three man genin teams had been broken up into groups of two for D-class missions, a bullet he had barely dodged by dint of his new assignment. He still wasn't sure if he had been lucky or gotten screwed.

After he gave Shizune her coffee (flavoured generously with chocolate) and braved Tsunade's office to ungraciously hand off her tea (giving her attitude was almost as satisfying as poking Naruto into exploding), Sasuke slouched off to his own work space and gave the paperwork on his desk a morose stare. He wouldn't have to do most of the work himself, of course, but he did have to figure out where it needed to go and occasionally compile reports so that the Hokage didn't have to read everything herself to get the important information.

One such project occupied that afternoon—the bureaucratic mess of making sure their records for the statuses of all their active duty nin was updated after Orochimaru's failed invasion. Sasuke silently cursed the man to hell while he painstakingly picked through missing persons reports, autopsies, promotions, and hospital reports of career changing or ending injuries. When he was all done, he scanned through the lists of inactive ninja (very short, considering that they had almost all been called to active duty), active genin, Chuunin, Tobeketsu Jounin, and full Jounin, and then ended it off with finalizing the lists of fatalities and forcibly retired ninja. Then he frowned.

"Something's not right," he muttered to himself, leafing through the missing persons reports and comparing them to the autopsies. Three genin were completely missing— They hadn't been reported as missing, injured, or dead, but they also hadn't been relisted on the active duty roster when they should have reported in. A shinobi village thrived on information and noting details, so it seemed unlikely that no one would have noticed the oddity in the month since the incident. It wasn't as though no one knew the three genin— one of them was the hospital director's son. Yet somehow none of them had been reported as missing or killed in action.

"Where's their sensei," he hmmed, pulling out the appropriate file. 'One person not being noted missing is a strange incident. Three… either criminal levels of incompetency or conspiracy.' Even if absolutely no one else knew they were missing, their sensei should have noted. When he found the appropriate file, Sasuke frowned. "Well, shit," he said with finality, irritably piling the relevant papers up to stalk to Tsunade's office. He rapped on the door and pushed it open without waiting for an answer.
The woman inside hurriedly pushed something off of her desk and pinned him with a sneer, amber eyes narrowed at his audacity.

"Put me in my place later," he grumped, handing over the folder. "I found something strange. An entire genin team that was completely unaccounted for but somehow not listed as missing. I wondered why their sensei didn't report the disappearances if nothing else. Turns out that their genin sensei was found dead in his home after the exam. By all accounts, he'd been dead for months." He raised an eyebrow. "You would think that they would have noticed that."

Tsunade groaned, running a hand through her hair and staring blearily at the papers he had handed her. "Why don't you people ever have any good news," she groused, glaring at the papers accusingly. "It's never 'we have record numbers of enrollment' or 'the peasants want another holiday in your honor.' Nooo, all you people ever tell me is what's wrong." She sighed heavily, dropping the papers and making a grab for her stash of hard candy, Shizune's most recent attempt to wean her off the hard liquor during business hours. She popped an orange candy in her mouth and sucked on it, clearly thinking. "The obvious explanation is that those three are traitors and they jumped ship," she eventually conceded, frowning darkly, "though that wouldn't explain why no one reported them missing." The woman groaned again, letting her head fall back on her chair.

"Someone covered it up for them to give them time to get out," Sasuke surmised easily. "Or covered up the kidnappings, if that's what happened to them. The Sound did make attempts on bloodline users that would have been easy targets—hospitalized genin and Chuunin, generally teenagers. Those three are on the older scale, but still within the age range we know was targeted."

"Did any of the three have bloodlines?" Tsunade frowned, gesturing for him to pass over their personnel reports. He easily acquiesced. The blonde frowned, resting her elbows on the table and scanning the papers. Sasuke tried not to stare too obviously at the way her shirt fell open at the movement. That was, like, half a foot of cleavage. It was mesmerizing. 'Is it a genjutsu?' he wondered seriously, eyes flicking between her face and the hemline of her shirt. Luckily, he was looking up when the women cursed like a sailor and threw the papers in a fit of temper. "Two of them were from minor bloodlines," she exhaled. "Orochimaru always did like playing around with genetics."

Sasuke frowned. "But he's dead," he said abruptly and a little viciously.

"I know that," his mentor snapped irritably. "The kidnapping idea is unlikely, unless we are also assuming that the combined intelligence of those three is low enough that they would fail to notice their teacher was dead for a month. Orochimaru probably promised them something, a place in his stupid Sound village most likely, in exchange for intelligence." She hissed a long breath out between pursed lips, staring off into space in a way that implied her mind was elsewhere. "Which means we need to figure out what they had access to and probably work on updating codes and procedures under the assumption that Sound possesses them."

When she gestured, Sasuke obediently propped open the door so she could yell to the secretary to clear her schedule for the next hour, and then whistled for one of her ANBU guards and promptly demoted him to fetching the head of intelligence. Sasuke watched, nonplussed. When she finally noticed him again, the woman huffed. "Good job, gaki. Don't you have work to do?" She gave a start at something remembered, and then a wicked grin. "Actually, I think you're ready to move on to human autopsies. Why don't you join the group with Homura Mito in…" she tilted her head to see the clock on the wall between the bookshelves. "half an hour. I think I remember signing off on the paperwork for supervised analysis of a Mist nuke-nin today. Try not to get sick."

Sasuke rolled his eyes and sauntered out, passing a rather flustered Shizune who was arguing on the phone with someone who was apparently far too important to have their appointment pushed back.
________________________________________

"This bites," Ino groused, delicately hefting plywood over her shoulder (a bizarre accomplishment) and grimacing at the potential for splinters. Her partner for the day rushed back and forth from the construction site and the lumber piles with far too much energy to be entirely appropriate. "Lee, just watching you is making me tired."

Tenten gave an amused laugh through the nails held in her teeth, hammering away at the joint her partner was holding in place. Neji grimaced slightly in a way that implied he could commiserate, but he didn't comment verbally.

Granted, she had not been foolish enough to believe that repairing damaged infrastructure would be glamorous (the village wide D-class assigned to all genin while their instructors rushed to fill border rosters and take high-paying missions and academy students picked up the slack on other menial missions). But the stupid reconstruction missions seemed to be never ending.

"We should all just get certified as architects once we're done here," Tenten joked once her mouth was empty of metal pieces, wiping at her sweaty forehead with the back of her hand. She didn't mind hard work, but she was a little bummed that the two boys who had been promoted in the exam were younger than she was. The Aburame and the Nara boys had both left for border patrol, which she only happened to know because they had left with Gai-sensei, who would be the senior nin at the outpost.

"That is an excellent suggestion, Tenten-san," Lee huffed cheerily, grabbing the end of the wood he was carrying and whipping it around his body, letting go at the perfect time so that it soared directly to Neji, who snatched it right out of the air and used it to prop up the sagging roof. Then he bounded up the side of the nearly-finished porch and landed neatly on the roof, beaming down at his partner. "Ino-san! If we cannot finish tiling this roof before Neji-san repairs the porch, we should do one hundred laps around the lake!"

The Yamanaka dropped the last armful of wood as if it burned her and let it clatter to the grass, already on the roof and yanking the hammer out of Lee's fist. "No way, eyebrows!" He immediately fell to his knees beside her and began laying tiles out in rows, scooting sideways just a little faster than she could hammer them in place.

Neji rolled silver eyes at his kunoichi teammate, hammering at his own task a little faster but making no comment. Tenten sighed fondly, fluffing out her bangs and gamely propping up the triangular brace that was going to scallop the edges of the porch. When he paused in his rhythmic hammering for a moment before picking up the pace angrily, Tenten curiously looked around for what had bothered him. All she could see was that the team working on a house across the street (an Akimichi and the Inuzuka from the last Chuunin exam) had been joined by a redhead and his shy little cousin. Tenten eyed the girls pensively, wondering why Neji even cared. He had always seemed to dislike the brunette, and she had never even met the redheaded girl in the purple dress before. Then she noted a slight oddity, with the laser-like precision of Academy-trained nosiness and anal-retentive attention to detail.

'Didn't Hinata-san used to wear her forehead protector around her neck?' Tenten shrugged. She'd remembered because it had seemed rather unusual. 'It looks good on her forehead,' the older girl noted. 'She looks more serious.'

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Edited 1/20/14. For some reason, I had apparently skipped an entire year and made Aiko 14 when she should have been 13. If I missed one of those errors, I apologize.

Chapter Text

Strangely enough, I only ended up getting two sections done, but I'm posting since the word count is still okay and I haven't posted in a while. I'll get back to the other plot elements, don't worry. I've just been very busy- moving, the GRE, work, having someone steal all my money...
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When the waitress came around, Jiraiya put in his order without a hint of flirtation. When his companion said nothing and the girl skittered a little uncomfortably, fluffy pen held to her heart-shaped pad of pink paper, Jiraiya rolled his eyes and looked up at the man across the table for the first time. "Are you going to order anything?"

Black eyes slid over to the girl, but his expression didn't change as if he really saw her or the way she was blushing. "No."
"Suit yourself," Jiraiya sighed, waving the girl off and slouching. Somehow he still managed to emit an aura of formidability. It wasn't necessary. No one was close enough to overhear and Itachi would sense any usage of chakra.

"The Lady Tsunade has returned to Konoha," he uttered tonelessly, staring off into space. It was an inauspicious start to an information exchange. Then again, Uchiha had never been known for polished conversational abilities. Odds as to whether he was socially impaired or actually just reticent were about fifty-fifty.

Regardless of the motivation, Jiraiya knew the teenager well enough to realize he was both asking for confirmation and dancing around something else. "Yes," he said shortly, glaring a little bit at the reminder. "To fix your mess, and to become Hokage. I'm surprised you haven't heard about that part yet at least."

Itachi narrowed his eyes, unused to that kind of vehemence from the man. "You are angry," he stated. It was a habit of his that drove others to near-fits of irritation, but was often effective at gathering information without giving the other conversationalist the psychological upper hand of being asked a question.

Jiraiya felt a muscle twitch in his jaw, despite being familiar with mental and verbal games of all sorts. 'I hate conversations with this brat,' he grumped internally. 'He doesn't give me many cues to work off. If we are here to exchange information we should just be straight forward.'

Despite his near blindness, he knew that the younger man somehow sensed his irritation. The sage heaved an irritated sigh, casting a longing glance in the direction of the kitchen. "You put my goddaughter in the hospital," he said shortly in a way that implied that part of the conversation was over. He knew that the boy had to maintain his cover and that included attacking leaf nin, but there were dozens of ways he could have stopped the girl from interfering without causing that kind of damage. Then his gaze sharpened when he noted something unusual. Confused, Jiraiya registered that some brief emotion had crossed the boy's face, which was unusual to say the least. He had no idea what it was, but he had almost certainly surprised the teen. "But you didn't know that," he said slowly, trying to pry out what it was that had elicited a visible reaction. 'That didn't do it.' He consciously did not frown, but he was dissatisfied with the lack of results.

The teen had somehow gone even stiller, obviously recognizing that he had given away some sort of clue. 'He had to have known that she would have been hospitalized after a genjutsu like that,' Jiraiya reasoned. 'Is he surprised at the implication that she survived? No. If he'd wanted her dead she would be. It is the fact that I know her that surprised him? But why would he even care about a Leaf Chuunin? It would have been more like him to ignore her and continue to his objective. He's never liked extra casualties.' Something uneasy roiled in his gut. He trusted the boy on some levels, but the implication that there was some reason for S-class nin to care about his goddaughter was unsettling. Monsters like that shouldn't even know she existed yet. With parents like that it would be surprising if she didn't reach that level one day, but that day was not today.

"Enough of this," the nukenin demurred, pulling out a short scroll. Jiraiya took it numbly, knowing that the report on Akatsuki was doubtlessly important even if it didn't seem that way right now. 'I must be imagining things,' he tried to convince himself. Jiraiya was normally an excellent liar, but it didn't seem to be working as the teen across the table nodded his head farewell and strode off, still henged into less conspicuous clothing and facial features.

A disturbing thought occurred. 'Was it really an accident that Aiko was the first person Itachi and Hoshigaki ran into in Konoha?' The large man shifted in his seat, barely noticing the sounds of laughter from a distant table. He had initially assumed so. Then again, a ninja didn't live to be his age without examining strange occurrences closely.

And an S-class nin who had been out of the village for seven years just happening to display even the slightest hint of interest in his former student's child positively stank of something suspicious. 'Aiko, what have you been up to?'

When it came, the food tasted like ashes. That might have been his perception or the fact that he was at a total dive. So he dropped a gold coin on the table and headed back to the hotel where he had left his charge sleeping a few hours sooner than planned. The boy would no doubt scream about perverts if he knew that the sannin had poked his head in the room where the child slept, but the reassurance made him feel marginally better. Jiraiya cradled his head in his hands, white hair a riotous mess around his face, and sighed. 'I knew that the boy was in serious trouble,' he thought wearily. 'But I never considered that his sister might be in direct danger. Sure, she could be used against him, but that's a mess to consider when they finally get serious about hunting Naruto and realize that he's too powerful to take easily. Maybe I should find out why exactly an S-class criminal (even if he isn't one, strictly speaking) has interest in a 13 year old. Perhaps I could accept it as keeping an eye on a potential future problem if someone had figured out that she was Minato's child, but if Itachi had known that he would have already suspected I had a connection to the child.'

Itachi was equally discomfited by the brief exchange, reflecting on it even when he met back up with his partner to travel to their next mission. He had considered bringing up his strange encounter to Jiraiya to prod for information. It had never occurred to him that the toad sage would bring up the girl. The revelation that she was his goddaughter was a little shocking, and he had instantly known that the sage would not give him any useful information on the girl. Prying further would have only put the man on guard and revealed that he had a strong reason to be curious about someone he had encountered completely on accident. If he truly could find no other way to investigate whatever was going on, he would try again later.

'Unsettling.' Hoshigaki Kisame edged slightly further from his partner, sensing the boy was irritated even without any visible cues. After working together for years, he was well attuned to his partner's tells.

Itachi couldn't bring himself to care about what the nukenin thought, face pressed into an incredibly mild frown. 'I do not like hints that I have missed a possible factor.'

It wasn't the only news that had taken him by surprise, a feeling he definitely did not like. At least discovering that his otouto had been taken under the wing of the Hokage herself had been reassuring, though unexpected considering the long-standing enmity between their clans.

If he had been anyone else, Itachi might have snorted with morbid amusement when he caught himself thinking that. 'With one Senju and one Uchiha in Konoha, would it not be more unlikely if the feud continued?'

Regardless of old grudges, the Senju woman would likely be able to guide Sasuke and help him gain the strength to stay safe from monsters like Madara. He might need more motivation if he seemed to be growing complacent. The 19 year old did his best to turn away from that unpleasant thought, but once it had occurred he couldn't stop wondering if his brother's drive to get stronger had faded in the years since he had seen Sasuke. If it had…

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Glossy, perfect nails caught the sunlight from the windows and refracted sparkles from blue glitter polish onto the wall when Aiko pulled open the door to wait on the deck for her two partners. She had been guarding their belongings while the older two did reconnaissance.

Cool wind tugged at her hair, carrying with it the scent of dying flowers. She frowned slightly and tried to gather up the tangles with her fingers, irritated with how long her hair had gotten again when she wasn't paying attention. "Time for a haircut," she sighed, a little surprised that she could actually see strands of blonde hair in her peripheral. The summer sun had bleached out almost all of the red that had seemed so prominent, leaving her much closer to looking like Naruto's relative than Karin's. Just a short year ago, she had been dead in between color-wise.

She blew air out, letting her lips purse with irritation and leaned back into the cool stone wall. For more than one reason (like the lack of sound and the wall immediately behind her), she was startled to feel warm breath on her ear. Aiko shrieked and wheeled around, backing up to see Anko's grinning face hanging out of the open window and her Kakashi slouching by the door, looking hangdog as usual.

She scowled and stuck her tongue out at Anko, curling into her sensei's side and wrapping her arms around him. "She's mean to me," she pouted.

"Don't be like that," Anko drawled, hopping out the open window and joining the other two on the porch. "Well, do you want to tell her the good news or should I?"

She felt her teacher take a deep breath and set his hands on her shoulders, gently prying the teenager off his front. Aiko blinked up at him, awkwardly splitting her attention between his one uncovered eye and the leaf sigil covering the other one. "Well, we're pretty much done with this cover," he announced, pushing his hands into his pockets and slouching slightly.
Surprised, Aiko furrowed her brows. "I thought the guy we caught said the information broker was going to be coming by soon," she objected mildly.

"He is," Kakashi agreed easily. "In fact, he is in town now, in this very hotel."

"Makes sense," she breathed, already cataloguing the few weapons on her person and checking that her chakra reserves were full.

Her teacher held up a hand lazily. "Maa, not so fast," he drawled. "Our client owns this hotel, remember? It would be foolish to engage him here and risk property damage. We will be following our guy out of town. That means we're done resting. We can't afford to sleep until the target makes a move. I don't anticipate that he will be leaving until dark, however. Get packed."

"Yes, sir," she reflexively breathed, pushing past Anko and into her adjoining room, making quick work of the little she had to gather. Most of it had already been folded into a storage seal (a ridiculously frivolous use of a ninja skill, but she could at least justify it as practice). With deft movements, she slipped into more practical footwear, trying not to think too hard about how the knee-high boots must look with the short orange and pink yukata she had been wearing and ripping a line down the side of the material to give easier access to the thigh holster she snapped into place, finishing off by buckling her black hip pouch over the dress and sliding it to rest on the back of her right hip.

By the time she had joined the other two, their rooms looked as though they could have been vacant for weeks. She slipped through and stood at Anko's side. "Ready?" Anko asked, looking down. When she nodded in reply, the older girl gave a sharp grin and nodded. "Right then." She raised her right hand up in a two-fingered seal. "Release!" With a tiny puff, the purple-haired woman disappeared altogether.

Mildly surprised, Aiko raised an eyebrow at her sensei but knew better than to ask for an explanation. The bunshin had probably been meant to signal Anko that backup was on the way. Now that she thought about it, it would have been stupid for them to leave the target alone after they finally found him. Kakashi sighed, flipping his hip pouch shut and straightening. Then he took off, just barely slow enough for her to follow. The speed hardly surprised her anymore, not after four years of being his student. Every time it seemed that she had gotten close to matching his insane speed, he somehow managed to surprise her and make it look easy.

She wasn't surprised to discover that her sensei had been right about when the broker would choose to make a move while Anko tailed him and the other two hung back, ready to provide support but minimizing chances that the broker would sense them. They waited at the far range of Anko's sensing range- close enough that a panicked signal would have them at her side within seconds, but far enough away to speak quietly. Aiko sighed lightly, leaning into her teacher's side. The familiarity was soothing. He glanced down and then his gaze was directed upwards again, at the rooftops and tree line.

"I'm glad Tsunade-sama gave us this mission, sensei. I didn't like it when you went away after the… after Sakura," she breathed quietly. He moved a little uncomfortably. "I… I think that was hard on the boys too." He awkwardly patted her on the head, giving one of the stupidly fake eye smiles. "Don't do that," she snapped, instantly irritated. "You're not really happy, so don't pretend. It's fine to be mad and sad."

"Aa, Aiko-chan," he mumbled, gently knocking the side of her head with his hand and gazing upwards wistfully. "If you insist. I'm not particularly good with those conversations."

The girl huffed, stepping backwards playfully to evade his hand mussing her loose hair. "Whatever you say, old man."

She was a little surprised when instead of a reply, her teacher's eye flashed toward her an instant before a presence materialized right behind her and pulled a forearm across her neck, dragging her backwards into a female chest. "Don't move," a voice hissed directly in her ear. Ignoring that altogether, Aiko went limp and slipped downward just enough for Kakashi to flash-step directly in front of her with a thunderous expression and his large hand wrapped entirely around the woman's neck with what must have been painful force.

He leaned in painfully close, his chin nearly brushing the top of Aiko's head. "I would advise that you let go. Now." The dark eye narrowed dangerously seemed to pierce a hole directly into the surprised woman behind her, who Aiko could see out her peripheral mostly as a porcelain pale chin and a riotous mass of cotton candy blue curls, decorated with black ribbons and glittering clear beads.

A low chuckle filled the air. "Listen to papa bear, Naomi," another woman crooned. Aiko was immediately released and swiveled out of the way.

"Apologies, Mayumi." The strange kunoichi stepped backwards as soon as Kakashi let go, rubbing at her neck idly and focusing all her attention on the tanned, dark-haired woman who had materialized. She was accompanied by a bear of a man with silky brown hair that fell to his shoulders. All three of them were wearing Rock forehead sigils. The two standing together were wearing what appeared to be some variation of a Jounin uniform in dark grays with green detailing. The blue-haired woman was younger—perhaps a teen, and clad in plain black pants and long-sleeved shirt covered in a virtual armory of arm and leg holsters and criss-crossing belts.

The woman who had grabbed Aiko gave a sigh—Naomi?— and leaned back, blinking indolently at the two Konoha nin in between the Rock shinobi.

"Please, forgive my kohai," the second woman purred and slipped one scarred hand into a pouch at her hips. "She got a little jumpy. I think that we have ended up on the trail of the same person, a high level missing nin from our village. We have documentation to prove it." She held it out to Kakashi with a faintly challenging expression.

Briskly, Kakashi examined the sheaf of folded papers she held out, pulsing chakra through it to activate the little watermark that proved the carriers were conducting official business. "Your papers are legitimate, but that doesn't allow you to be in Fire Country unsupervised," he pointed out mildly. The tall man sneered silently, but didn't say anything when the woman at his side stepped forward with a cold and false conciliatory smile.

"I apologize for the inconvenience, but he meant to shake us by crossing the border. It was hard for my team and I to imagine returning home when he would likely duck back over the border within a day. Perhaps your team could accompany us? You can take command, of course."

Aiko scowled a little, but said nothing as her teacher agreed, tossing her a look that she knew was meant as a warning to be careful. They couldn't leave the group alone, and if they were really right about the target being an A class missing ninja, there was no point in denying the group and inevitably end up fighting them to get to the target. As long as he was killed or apprehended, their job was done anyway. Strange that such a high class ninja would find himself buying and selling information, but that was a dangerous job after all.

That was when all five shinobi straightened, looking up an instant before Anko materialized out of a cloud of dark particles. She raised an eyebrow at the group. "Kakashi?"

"Report," Kakashi said briskly, not looking at the three foreign nin.

She shrugged. "Target is moving west, fast."

He gave a heavy sigh, glancing between the other five shinobi. "Aiko, take the rear. I want a four hundred foot following distance. Anko, take point with Mayumi-san here. I will take the center line with Naomi-san and grumpy-san here."
Naomi snorted. "You mean Jun?"

He shrugged artlessly. Jun glared at the other man, taking the furthest right position and ignoring the laughs from the front of the formation. Then they took off, following Anko's directions. Aiko tried not to pout, a bit irritated about being babied. She knew damn well why she had the rear—it was likely to be the safest position and Kakashi didn't trust the Rock team at all. That didn't mean she was particularly happy about the implication that he didn't trust her in a fight around an elite opponent.
It became clear that their target knew he was being pursued when they picked up the pace, rushing brutally. Aiko couldn't help but grin at the chase, wishing it was just her and her sensei and the dog pack. She had missed those sorts of missions. Training was all well and good, but escort missions and dealing with administrative work lacked the thrill of the hunt.

Hopefully, now that the genin had found new sensei, things could go back to the way they had been before.

The group burst into a clearing and immediately knew that their target had chosen to make his stand there. It was the first time Aiko had seen him. He wasn't particularly impressive looking, but then again neither was her sensei when he didn't want to be. The man was slim, clad in gray pants and a high collared red top, with a short black ponytail and bangs that hid his eyes from view.

He was also a sword specialist from what she saw as he pulled a thin, flat blade out from a hidden sheathe on his back under his top, making a swipe at Anko that the first rock kunoichi parried with her bare hands and a feral grin that made Mayumi's innocuous features somehow sinister. The man huffed. "I should be flattered, getting two full teams to hunt me down!" Anko had slipped around Mayumi, spitting a spray of poisoned senbon that ricocheted off his hardened skin with a tinkle like glass (goddamn rock-nin, Aiko thought absently, I hate that rock skin jutsu), though tiny punctures poked through his collar. As Mayumi swiped her right foot into the man's instep to destabilize him, Jun roared forward like a battering ram—and nearly ran full tilt into a tree when the target dropped down through the earth like a gopher.

Naomi whipped through hands seals—Aiko couldn't see them, but the muscles in her back were moving slightly, as were her elbows—and gave a violent stomp that opened up a crevice, out of which the target came flying, sword readied to open up her gut.

It might have been a killing blow, if Kakashi hadn't almost lazily intercepted the man, knocking the blade sideways with one hand and slipping the other under to hit the man with a spray of electricity. It was nothing on his Chidori, of course, but he convulsively bent over and missed his chance to prevent Naomi from ripping the sword out of his grasp and flinging it to the side.

That was about when Aiko was distracted by the fact that there were two unknown chakra signatures coming in hot from behind them. Her mouth was open and the words "friends of yours, Naomi-san" were on her lips when she felt the kunai whizzing towards her head and reflexively used the replacement jutsu with the closest bit of flotsam. That turned out to have been a broken branch behind her that positioned her in between the two new opponents. She barely swiveled in time to duck under the swinging blow from someone of indeterminate gender and age behind a mask and in one of those godawful pajama-like ninja outfits that old people like the Third Hokage preferred. In the seconds that followed, her rote taijutsu and the fact that these two new opponents were probably only B-class at best saved her life while the other rushed to accommodate the increase in opponents and break off into matches.

'Might not be a bad time to try those chakra chains,' she reasoned when she was joined by Mayumi, which left Kakashi and Naomi with their original target and Anko and Jun swinging back to intercept the third. She had never actually tried it in combat before, and this was about as low-pressure an environment as she was likely to get to experiment in—on the '2' side of a '2 to 1' fight. Karin had hypothesized that the adrenaline rush of a real fight might make it easier to use the ability for the first time and she could work backwards from there to replicate the adrenaline-fueled feat. The worst that would happen was she failed completely and let Mayumi cover her for a second.

That decided, Aiko grimaced with effort and leapt back, heels skidding in the dirt and furrowed her brow in concentration. The next second seemed to be in slow motion—the opponent seemed to glance between the two kunoichi, decide Mayumi was the immediate threat and swivel towards her at the same time that Aiko breathed deeply and visualized the excess energy escaping her back as a mass of chains.

Consciously, she didn't expect it to work. So she was just about as surprised as everyone else by the unearthly glow of the icy blue chakra that rocketed out of her body—and it was exhilarating! She felt so powerful, and it suddenly made so much fucking sense that Kushina could have done this on her death bed—and honed in on her opponent with pinpoint precision even as the shinobi attempted a dodge, wrapping around a struggling body in the blink of an eye with clanks and monster truck force and ripped the poor fucker to lumpy pieces that exploded outside of the chains.

Everything stopped for a full second, which was an ungodly long time in a shinobi battle. Aiko was relatively sure someone was gaping at her but she didn't turn to see, too fascinated by the disintegration of the chains she had materialized. She moved them experimentally, flinging a little bit of brain matter and making Mayumi flinch backwards.

"Uh, oops. May have underestimated my strength," she blurted, voice turning thoughtful halfway through. That had been interesting. It had been an enormous amount of chakra, however, and she didn't feel the least bit drained. Actually, it was a bit invigorating. How odd.

Lost in her analysis of her new power, she barely turned in time to catch her sensei ram a fist wreathed in solid lightning through the original target and the third opponent fail to move out of a glob of fire that Anko spat. The pause in motion lost him his head—Jun crossed twin daggers the length of her forearm in an X shape that popped it cleanly off like the eraser off a mechanical pencil. He didn't even try to dodge the resultant blood spray, turning his face up to catch it like Ino liked to do with a spring shower.

"Eww," Aiko breathed, a little grossed out.

Someone scoffed. "Like you're one to talk! What the hell was that, short stuff?" Naomi stuck her tongue out, scrunching up her face in disgust. "That was so weird!"

Aiko gave a giddy little giggle, still high on adrenaline and trying not to look directly at the mess she had just made. "Uzumaki chakra chains, apparently," she supplied a little absentmindedly. "Never worked quite like that before…"

'Never worked at all before,' a voice in her head that sounded suspiciously like Karin snarked. She ignored that in favor of the strange expression that cross Mayumi's face. "Uzu.. Uzumaki?" she asked quietly, as if to herself, looking Aiko up and down. Then she shook her head. "Well, good thing we met up. That would have taken longer three on three." She wiped her hands off on her thighs, walking over to the original target and using her toe to push him over. "You don't mind, do you?" She sounded perfectly nonchalant, but she was visibly uncomfortable around the Konoha nin who had apparently proven to be more intimidating than she had expected. Solid chakra constructs were the hardest kind, and two of them had whipped a technique like that out. Aiko tried not to smirk.

"Of course not," Kakashi said gracefully, stepping away and slouching harmlessly again. "Come along, ladies." Anko scowled at being called a lady but obligingly joined them. The three Konoha shinobi crouched in unison, and flash-stepped away towards Konoha, leaving the Rock-nin to deal with the body. It wouldn't do to stick around and get accused of trying to glean information from the corpse after all.

In a blood-soaked clearing, Jun scowled at the direction the Konoha shinobi had left in. "An Uzumaki?" he asked, tone caught between disbelief and disgust. "I thought those fuckers were long gone. Are we really going to let them go?"

Naoki frowned, looking between her older comrades. "I don't understand. Do you know her family?"

Mayumi gave a barking laugh void of amusement and shook her head. "Sometimes I forget you're just a baby, Naoki-chan." She ignored the resultant scowl. "Seal masters from the long-defunct Whirlpool village, but they've always been closely tied to those Konoha dogs." She spat on the ground and sneered in the direction of said village. "They had one about fifteen years back with that same ability when I was a brand-new genin shoved out onto the frontlines as fodder. She was a fucking monster. Never knew what happened to her. Red chained death, I think she was."

"Well, those weren't red," Jun said a bit dryly, bending to tug off the forehead protector as proof of the kill and giving the corpse a vicious kick. He hated tracking, and this stupid fuck had dragged them halfway across the country. "But I think I know what happened to her." He snickered. "She spawned and retired."

"Uzu.." Naomi's face crumpled up. With the foreigners gone, she had abandoned her attempts at stoicism. "Wasn't that the village that developed the bijuu sealing shit? With the special clan that were optimal containers?"

Mayumi's mouth moved for a moment, but she didn't say a thing. Then she gave a slow, horrible smile. "You know, that gives me an idea. What kind of profit do you think we could make off of a perfect vessel like that? Or even if no one wants to use her, I'm sure that Cloud, at least, would be very interested in making sure that career ends early. Mummy dearest didn't make a lot of friends."

Jun scoffed. "She's too old to forget her loyalty to Konoha and be controlled."

"Never too old to forget," Mayumi countered. "What, you think Konoha and those blonde bastards have the monopoly on interfering with minds? There's always a way. Any even if it doesn't work out and she ends up dead, there'll be no Red Chained Death 2.0".
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Edited 1/20/14. For some reason, I had apparently skipped an entire year and made Aiko 14 when she should have been 13. If I missed one of those errors, I apologize.

Chapter Text

"God fucking damnit shit!" Misumi screamed, ripping off the black cloth that had covered his face and irritably ruffling his short, dark hair. At Yoroi's chuckle, he veered around, fist swinging, ready to dislocate his bones into the soft physique style and strangle his teammate.

The taller man dodged with ease, and taunted "Get a grip, would you princess?"

Misumi's eyes narrowed. "Oh, fuck off," he spat before giving his teammates a condescending look. "Everything's gone to shit and you're making jokes? This is serious. What the hell are we supposed to do with Orochimaru dead, huh?" He shoved Yoroi.
The quiet sound of a throat clearing interrupted him. "Don't be so rude, Misumi-kun," Kabuto chided calmly, expression placid and body relaxed. "We're almost to Sound."

The shortest man present snorted. "There is no goddamn Sound. I betrayed Konoha for nothing. So much for everything Orochimaru promised us." Panic made his features ugly. "I guess I could see if anyone is willing to pay for your stupid hides," he jeered.

Kabuto gave a light sigh and Yoroi's lips quirked into a faint smile, moving away from the two.

Some long-disused alarm in Misumi's head started ringing, and he glared suspiciously at his teammates. He'd never liked them anyways. Getting stuck with a stupid medic and some jackass who stole chakra had been a criminal waste of his frontline taijutsu abilities. Orochimaru had promised him so much more than that when the skinny medic in front of him had recruited Misumi from the dregs of the genin corps. What the hell was he going to do now? They had been forced to flee Konoha after the invasion, knowing that their cover would have been broken soon even if no one had yet reported seeing Konoha genin fighting with Sound and Sand.

"Oh, Misumi-kun," Kabuto shook his head pityingly. "Have you no imagination? I was Orochimaru's second in command. We're going to Sound to take over operations. I already sent the Sound five out on a mission. Now that they answer to me, everyone will."

Misumi scowled, both at the overly familiar address and the idea that his scrawny medic teammate had what it took to lead a village. He opened his mouth to tell off the silver-haired idiot—and found himself surprised at how quickly Kabuto had moved to be directly in front of him, bending slightly to stare into his eyes. Misumi couldn't gauge what the other man was thinking, as the sunlight had caught Kabuto's glasses and was obscuring his eyes. Unnerved, he raised a hand to push Kabuto away.
Kabuto caught the movement with a painfully strong grip around Misumi's wrist that moved the bones in his joint around uncomfortably. "I'm afraid that I didn't mean you," he crooned. "Sound has little use for cowards." Then Misumi knew no more.

Kabuto sighed and used earth techniques to sink the freshly made corpse into the ground. Normally he might have sealed away the body for use later, but he didn't have the materials with him. "What a waste," he sighed. He'd invested hours into Misumi's genetic modifications, and now that was all lost. He huffed a quiet laugh, and continued on with his remaining teammate following silently, wondering if this was what Orochimaru had felt like when the seal he'd placed on the Uchiha had never really taken root. It was frustrating to see all that work wasted. No wonder the man had experienced a fit of temper when he sensed the reinforcements coming in. He would have known immediately that Anko would know to suppress the seal before it had a chance to take hold. Perhaps given later action the situation would have been salvageable, but now that Orochimaru had passed and the seal couldn't feed off his chakra, Sasuke-kun's seal was probably just a tattoo.

It was actually more surprising that Orochimaru hadn't killed Sasuke-kun's other teammate out of spite. The original plan had called for leaving one of them alive to protect the Uchiha while the seal seared into his flesh and chakra, but once it had become obvious that Anko and her ANBU team (and therefore plenty of others) knew he was in the forest that the boy would never be allowed to wait out the test.

His takeover of Sound went as smoothly as he had predicted. Kabuto had proven himself by beating the Sound Five, and ninja trained in Sound learned to reluctantly bend their necks to larger predators. He expected plenty of attempts on his life, of course, but that was par for the course.

Really, the biggest problem was figuring out his next course of action. Kabuto sighed, assigning Yoroi as his bodyguard (he didn't need it, but it was better to keep one of his more reliable tools at hand) and taking stock of the medical bay. Tayuya had been more than a little bit upset about being sent on an errand to re-supply the human material for his experiments, but the indignity was necessary. On his own, Kabuto was solidly high Jounin level for combat. His major strengths lay in his medical abilities and genetic modifications. In order to rule over this snake pit, he would have to increase the pace of his experimentations and augmentations, and science required (and produced) heaps of corpses.

'Perhaps Orochimaru had the right idea about Sasuke-kun,' he mused to himself, flipping on the lights of his dank laboratory. The lack of sanitation would be something to fix now that he was in charge—he put more stock in practicalities and less in theatricalities than Orochimaru had done. 'I have always liked the look of the Sharingan.'

For now, of course, it would be difficult to go on his own. Luckily, he didn't have to. Kabuto quickly made arrangements to meet with one of his most profitable contacts. The man still thought he was a sleeper agent for Akatsuki, of course, and would see no reason not to lend assistance. Sasori of the Red Sand would be an invaluable ally. Sound knew it was weak, and they needed leverage to keep the wolves at bay—the Leaf and Sand would doubtlessly be coming for their heads when they had licked their wounds.

________________________________________

"Stealth training my ass," Naruto grumbled irritably to himself, crouched on a ceiling. He carefully picked his way across the room, following the vague description his mentor had given him before flouncing off to harass some poor girl.

It was a bit of an indignity—Jiraiya wasn't even here to grade him on his performance. However, he had been told that if he couldn't manage to get to the meeting room unseen before Jiraiya and his contact did, then he wasn't fit to be an apprentice.
He froze, muscles locking and breath stilling to a pattern so slow that he could hardly hear it himself. It took a few seconds for him to actually hear what he had somehow sensed. Someone was coming along the corridor. Naruto flattened against the ceiling like a tree frog, letting the vague camouflage genjutsu the pervert had taught him ripple over his body. It had seemed like a strange choice—no one had ever thought he had the intelligence and control to cast genjutsu before.

It hadn't been an easy trick to pick up, and Naruto had been stupidly relieved to have finally mastered it. Control (for a jinchuuriki at least) seemed to be a long, boring process involving a lot of meditation and mastery of techniques involving gradually less chakra. He wasn't entirely certain when he would ever use the jutsu that crushed a small rock in his hand into chakra-infused earth or the one that allowed him to manifest a thin blade of wind-natured chakra that could only cut through something like paper, but by kami he had mastered them.

The figure finally passed by with light steps that hinted they were either a genin level ninja or a civilian with special skills like a dancer. It really was just a figure, because in that long cloak and with his poor night vision Naruto had no idea whether he'd been looking at a man or a woman. Naruto carefully sniffed the air to be sure the person had actually left and not just lurked around the corner.

The old man had been surprised by how excellent Naruto's hearing and sense of smell were (and then made a ton of dumb jokes about how loud he was and how bad ramen smelled) but had given him a basic introduction into using senses other than sight for tracking. He'd never be on Kakashi's level or even Aiko's (she'd picked up a lot of tricks in an apprenticeship to a tracker) but he could pretty well tell that the person really had continued on.

He picked his way through the house, stopping in the kitchen to grab a peach scented candy on impulse (crumpling the yellow wrapper in his pocket politely instead of leaving it around) before he finally found the room he'd been told to locate.
'He didn't give me a lot to work with.' Naruto tried not to pout, thinking of this as a mission instead of a test. He liked missions much better. The room was large and open, with a table set up for tea ceremony and flowers in vases all around. There was a screen, but he immediately discarded that as far too obvious as a hiding place.

No doubt the old pervert would know he was there— especially since he'd told Naruto to listen in—but he had been told to do his best to hide.

A wicked thought occurred, and Naruto gave a wide grin that Iruka would have known meant trouble. He dropped to the floor silently and carefully pulled out one of the flower arrangements without disturbing the alignment. He didn't know what this one said, but he knew that the colors, varieties, and placements of flowers spelled a message. Ruining it would be clumsy and a dead giveaway. He hustled with the vase to a side room he had recently passed and dumped all the water out in the sink, heaving a relieved sigh when no odds and ends from flowers colored the drain. He didn't want to risk the noise of turning on the water.

The trip back to the room took less than a minute, and he carefully placed the vase back in place, the flowers almost entirely back in so that gravity would fix it if he let go, and then flipped onto the wall beside the arrangement and used his free hand to help him concentrate his chakra for the second water technique his sister had ever taught him with his head directly over the lip of the vase. "Hiding in the water," he barely breathed aloud, slipping into liquid and letting his body condense into the purple tinted vase.

It was an unpleasant feeling, especially when the flowers slid down into the water that his body had become, but he metaphorically grinned and bore it for what felt like hours before the pervert shuffled into the room behind an older woman in traditional clothing and a grumpy expression.

The meeting that followed was boring and Naruto barely managed to pay enough attention to prove he had been close enough to hear what went on. Jiraiya gave the room strange looks when his partner looked away, checking the ceiling, that screen, and even under the table. His field of vision barely managed to include the table, so Naruto couldn't be sure he caught everything that went on. He definitely noticed when his teacher starting looking over the flowers with a strange amount of attention.
He was reminded of the many flaws of this jutsu when the adults left the room and it was time to get out. Hiding in the water created a sort of wiggly space where his body was compressed within whatever shape the water took. That meant that he couldn't really control the water. It would have been easiest to simply end the jutsu and explode out of the bottle, letting whatever mess happened be and fleeing. But…

It would be a little rude to make a mess like that, and also give a pretty big hint that someone had been in that room. He was supposed to be proving that he was sneaky, after all.

Naruto coiled up as best as he could, trying to shoot upwards out of the vase and materialize as he passed the lip of the glassware. It sort of worked—the vase didn't break or go anywhere, but the flowers shot out with him, flopping awkwardly onto the ground and table.

Suppressing the urge to heave a sigh, Naruto gathered up the flora and put in back in the order it had been as best as he could. He had never really learned ikebana properly, but all ninja underwent memory training that would help them reconstruct a scene exactly. A few petals had been mangled, so Naruto pocketed them and climbed the wall back up to the ceiling. He hurried his way through the building—not the way that he had entered, as he had spotted a large open window on his way in and he was in a hurry to get back to where he was meeting Jiraiya.

The toad sage himself was a little baffled, chewing idly on a bit of grass and relaxing in the sun. The woman he'd met had been a real bummer, but she wasn't his contact. His contact had been the one to take the appointment for the meeting and prepare the room with messages encoded in ikebana and the type of tea served.

It had taken him an embarrassingly long time to spot the chakra-dense water that was his wayward genin. In his defense, the boy had seemed a bit thick and Jiraiya had been almost certain he would use the genjutsu he had been taught to hide in the room. The use of what appeared to be hiding in the water was even more baffling because Jiraiya knew damn well that the kid's primary affinity was wind. Maybe water was his secondary? Still, it was strange that he would know that jutsu at all.

When the windswept blonde dropped into a seated position at his feet and gave a long stretch, Jiraiya eyed the kid up. Something twitched in his left eye when he realized the brat had a bit of flora in his hair, but he didn't mention it.
"Where did you learn hiding in the water, and why didn't you tell me?"

Naruto gave him a strange look. "Aiko taught me."

Jiraiya rolled his eyes. "What for, gaki? There was no reason for you to learn water transformations."

The boy snorted. "Shows what you know. I could never use the tiny amount of chakra to make an Academy standard bunshin," he explained idly. "So Aiko taught me the water transformation one. It was a major pain," he groused with a pout. His expression brightened a moment later when he added that "learning a second water transformation was much easier."

The toad sannin didn't know if he wanted to laugh or cry. This kid had the strangest learning habits he'd ever encountered. Teaching Minato had been like teaching a much more intelligent version of himself—he started with basics and progressed with frightening speed up to expert level material. But Naruto was learning things that Jiraiya considered level zero like geography, tactics for low-pressure situations, and chakra control at the same time that he had apparently mastered the Chuunin level skill of completing an elemental transformation that wasn't the user's first type. Either Aiko was a hell of a teacher (and knew her student well) or Naruto was not the idiot he seemed. He didn't want to dismiss his goddaughter's influence out of hand, but he was now pretty damn sure that Naruto was actually a really clever kid.

The headache he felt at that moment was remarkably similar to the one he'd felt when the brat had picked up Rasengan in less than two weeks. Sure, it took less time to learn a jutsu than it did to invent it, but two weeks was ridiculous. It'd taken him longer than that, and he was much more experienced.

The thought occurred that perhaps the underwhelming reports he'd gotten about his godson's performance said more about the teaching methods than the student.

'Maybe I shouldn't try to hammer all the baby stuff into his head,' Jiraiya mused, staring thoughtfully off into space while his student gave him a weird look for his long silence. 'He doesn't have genin level understanding of approved procedures, but I'm not sure he needs to. The kid comes up with unconventional solutions.' Maybe it was just the way that the kid thought. He came at problems sideways instead of head on like a samurai or by sneaking around to the back like a ninja. If he couldn't predict how Naruto would deal with a problem, an enemy almost certainly wouldn't.

Using a water transformation to hide inside had actually been a rather clever trick. It was nontraditional to be sure, and he couldn't count that there would always be water around like that to use. Naruto had the benefit of crazy amounts of chakra—he would be able to maintain jutsu like that far longer than his peers. At his age, Jiraiya probably would not have been able to maintain the jutsu throughout that meeting, to say nothing of however long beforehand he had waited. It wasn't a trick that just anyone could use. That in mind…

"Kid, I'm going to teach you a non-elemental clone technique."

Naruto squawked indignantly. "What the hell for, old man!" He pointed accusingly. "You just don't want to teach me anything good!"
Jiraiya felt the irritation come creeping back. "Brat, I'm the teacher here!" he roared into Naruto's face. "This is way better than a water clone! Shadow clones are solid and can retain information. They're perfect for spying like what you just did, and you don't have to be the one crouched inside a vase."

Naruto blinked up at him. "So I could have shadow clones use hiding in water?"

"No," Jiraiya said shortly. 'Stupid. I mean, he could, but that would be pointless expenditure of chakra and an extra step.' Before Naruto could protest, he continued firmly, "Shadow clones can use henge. Since they're not material like you and I are, their henge can be an object of significantly smaller mass. Like a vase," he said pointedly. "So. For all I care, you could transform into a rubber duck and hide out in the hotsprings. Won't be able to see anything unless what you transform into has eyes, though."
That was an important caveat, and the main reason that he didn't get a lot more use out of the shadow clone technique. That and the fact that it had a hideous chakra cost, but what did that matter to an Uzumaki jinchuuriki? He could prance around all damn day blasting grand fireballs out his ass and it wouldn't matter.

He resolved not to make that statement aloud. Naruto might take it as a challenge to invent that version of the grand fireball. The kid hadn't been taught the regular version, of course, but he was determined enough that little things like facts might not stop him.

The boy rolled his eyes, but grumbled agreement. "But you gotta teach me something cool after this," he added hastily.
Jiraiya gave serious thought to using shadow clones to beat the hell out of the kid in taijutsu for a moment. The smile that crept over his features caused his student to inch backwards and eye him warily, but he didn't notice. It would be easier and less dangerous to teach him how to deal with multiple opponents that way than by finding real fights, he justified to himself. If he allowed each clone to only use certain things—one would use academy standard taijutsu, one would use what Kakashi had beat into his head, and one would pretend to be water type, etc, etc… then he could do a pretty good job of simulating the experience of dealing with multiple fighting styles at the same time that he actually taught the kid different fighting styles.

Plus it would shut him the hell up for a long time while he struggled not to get the crap kicked out of him.

"Alright, gaki. Pay attention." He slowly ran through a sequence of handsigns for Naruto's benefit. "This is how you initially learn it, maintaining constant chakra output from just one gate as you move through this sequence. You'll have to figure out the rate that's best for you- obviously, more chakra equals more clones but I want you to master one at a time to be sure you know what you're doing. When you have it ready, you hit it with about twice the amount of chakra you'll think you need all at once. Once you've got it down, we're going to cut off a handsign one at a time until you can do this with only the cross. Luckily for you, this technique requires flooding your limit gate with chakra and not any real control. So I don't want you embarrassing me by wasting time with ten handsigns."

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Uzumaki Karin had never thought of herself as a front line fighting type. She had known since she entered the academy that she had brains and sensing abilities that surpassed those of Jounin. Sure, she also had the enormous chakra reserves that characterized a front-line fighter, but she had possessed the foresight to downplay that as an ace in the hole. Since she had hidden her ability as a jutsu type (and done so too well, as no one had taught her a single jutsu back in Grass) and rather honestly been merely competent with weapons and taijutsu, she had been accustomed to her peers dismissing her as dead weight on a mission.

It was true, after all. Her speed was poor and she had no more combat ability than any other fresh genin.

She had assumed that she would be able to design some sort of specialty. Karin had the intelligence and patience to do well as a poisons analyst or work in code-breaking.

"And if it weren't for these Konoha dorks, I would have gotten away with it too," she groused to the empty clearing from her position slumped on the ground. Painstakingly (and that was meant in a literal sense) she drew her legs up and began yet another round of sit-ups.

It was both stupidly unfair and highly flattering that the Hokage herself had commented that Karin had been wasting her potential. Even if she had gone the medic route in Grass, she was relatively certain that her training wouldn't be this difficult. In a way that made sense— Konoha was renowned for their medical program. In another way it didn't—why the hell did a medic have to physically work hard enough to keep up with peers who were concentrating solely on combat ability? She was stretched thin between the endless reading and paper tests, the refinement of her Mystical Palm technique, her hours at the hospital, and physical conditioning.

So of course that crazy woman had given her yet another responsibility. Starting next week, she would be dealing with about half a class of third year students at the academy in an attempt to teach them to produce medical chakra. Tsunade apparently had the bright idea to get a medic onto every squad, starting terrifyingly young. The students who didn't make the genin cut would be shipped straight off to the hospital and free up highly trained personnel instead of going into the genin corps. Karin thought that Tsunade was nuts but hadn't been quite brave enough to say that. As she pouted, Sasuke and Aiko came running back to the clearing neck and neck. She gave them a dirty look, resenting that they were so far ahead of her in the workout. It was difficult to be so fabulous.

Being fabulous became even harder once her classes started up. Karin hadn't had anything to do with the selection of her students. Medical ninjutsu had simply been added onto the curriculum in the same way that students could pursue an extra projectile weapon—it was extra work so not everyone wanted to do it, but the class was populated both by the students working to maintain top rankings and those who had been counseled that they might do well in it.

At least the standards for the class weren't too high. Karin blew her shaggy bangs off her face with pursed lips and stalked up and down the rows, watching fourteen boys and girls straining to manage the initial manifestation. They had to be taught how to gather normal chakra to their hands first before they could learn to switch it to medical chakra by separating their own elemental affinity out of the mix. Medical chakra was a bit like type O blood—it was compatible with everyone because it didn't have any special properties.

Obviously, it was far from intuitive and required either a prodigious talent in chakra control or the intense familiarity with their chakra system that came from years of experience. Failing that, this type of class could try to force students to cram chakra control down their throats through sheer repetition.

She thoroughly expected this to be a miserable waste of her time, but hey. Orders were orders.
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I had the hardest time getting this chapter out. Oddly, an entire chapter without Aiko (nominally the main character) in it, and only one of the scenes is one I intended to write. e.e If that bothers you... I don't know, repress it or something because she's going to have to wait until next chapter. :)

Note- As soon as I had posted this I instantly remembered how to write the things that I want to write. Ridiculous. This was edited for minor errors 1/18/2014, the day after the original posting.

Chapter Text

"Don't be such a brat, Hatake," Tsunade practically snarled when the man finally reported two hours late for the full mission briefing. Anko had given her report and left over an hour ago, but Aiko had waited. It was easiest to find her sensei by lurking around places he eventually had to be.

Aiko and poor Sasuke did their best to be invisible without actually employing any genjutsu while Tsunade raged, cursing like a sailor interspersed with the occasional shriek and the thud of whatever she could grab hitting walls. (The use of chakra sometimes draws the attention of predators larger than oneself, a tip from Konoha's shinobi handbook page 147).

Shizune merely demonstrated her hard-won immunity to Tsunade's frightening atmosphere by rolling her eyes and walking right out of the office. The Hokage pointed unerringly at Aiko. She cringed. "If that brat is still a Chuunin, I'll eat my fucking bra! She's getting promoted and that's final. We need all the Jounin we can get."

Kakashi slumped back against the wall and waved his hand at the thirteen year olds looking spectacularly uncomfortable. "Maa, why don't you two go get drinks and let the grown-ups talk?"

Sasuke outright bolted, making it halfway to the stairs before Tsunade could call out angrily for them to stop. Aiko lingered a little, torn between the desire to flee the woman throwing paperweights through walls and her curiosity. The conversation was about her, after all.

"With all due respect Hokage-sama," Kakashi began in a not-particularly-respectful way, "That decision is mine to make. Not yours. It has always been the purview of an instructor to determine their apprentice ready to move up."

"I'm your Hokage," she snarled, looking downright feral. "You're being ridiculous. It's not a death sentence to get an early promotion. You did yourself, for crap's sake and you know damn well that I can go over your head with this."

Kakashi sighed and straightened, giving her a deadpan expression that indicated he was not impressed by her argument. "Are you really sure you don't want the kid to leave?" he tried one more time. Then he shrugged. "Fine."

'I'm not a kid,' Aiko quietly pouted. She did her best not to let the thought show on her face but almost certainly failed.

"I know that she isn't ready for this promotion in part because I wasn't, so don't tell me that I'm being a hypocrite," Kakashi droned, giving Aiko an uncharacteristically sharp look. She was wise enough to look sheepish. "And no. You can't go over my head. When I agreed to take an apprentice, I had stipulations. Granted, I think that the Sandaime was just humoring me, but he signed them. They're all nice and legal." He visibly dismissed Tsunade, looking idly up at the ceiling as if it held all the answers to the universe's questions. The woman was red-faced and practically shaking with fury.

'She doesn't deal well with having her authority challenged, does she?' Aiko mused. 'It may have been better if I weren't here for this conversation. This… is probably a little embarrassing for her.'

She wasn't entirely sure why her sensei was so insistent about stopping her promotion to Jounin. Aiko didn't mind it, though. Kakashi was one of the few people left in Konoha that she really cared about. She respected Tsunade, but she would support Kakashi over her. He almost certainly had a good reason for blocking her promotion. Besides, there weren't many perks to that promotion. She would probably be removed from Kakashi's team and sent on more dangerous missions.

'Actually, that might be the problem,' Aiko noted. 'Sensei is a little protective. In his weird little way.'

"Whenever you get your filing system figured out, you can read them yourself. If that's too much trouble, I suppose I could go get my copy. I made certain to use small words when I drafted the document, so you should be able to get through it even if Shizune is still irritated with you for acting like a spoiled child." Aiko tried to melt into the floor. He was definitely provoking her on purpose.

'The man is kinda nuts.'

Nuts or not, once again Kakashi-sensei left triumphant. The victory was slightly marred by the fact that he had been assigned a mission out of the village that, as Tsunade sneered, Aiko would not be able to accompany him on because she did not have Jounin clearance. 'Petty,' Aiko sighed. "Hey, sensei," she started quietly. (Her ears were still ringing.) "Dinner? My treat. I wanted to talk to you about an idea I had involving my chakra chains."

"Shishou."

Aiko blinked, a bit confused. "Uh, what?"

"Kakashi-shishou. I'm not your genin sensei anymore and I'm probably not going to take another team. So you're my apprentice." The words were delivered in an off-hand manner, but she was a bit stunned. It was a generous offer (not that he'd phrased it as an offer, the bastard).

Sure, she had technically been classified as his apprentice so that he could take a genin team. But Aiko had thought that was a legal thing. He'd never asked her to refer to him as anything other than 'sensei'.

Aiko felt her eyes begin to water in a very dignified, grown-up way. She honestly hadn't expected that. But his possessiveness made a lot of sense when she thought about it. He had just lost three students in the course of a month—one to the shinigami, one out of the goddamn country with a very powerful but inattentive master, and the third to Tsunade. In some way, he probably thought Tsunade was trying to take away his last student.

Still, mitigating factors or not, it was pretty damn prestigious to be taken as an apprentice instead of just a student.
Aiko sniffled, wiping at her face and giving him a winning smile. "Hai, shishou!"

He eyed her suspiciously. "I'm not going out to dinner with you if you're going to cry," he warned seriously.
She shook her head. "No, I just blinked and an eyelash got in my eye. I'm totally cool, promise."

"Right." He rolled his eye and set off down the street. "I think I want barbeque," he mused out loud.

His apprentice gracefully accepted the subject change and followed him to a restaurant she knew well—it was one that Ino liked. 'You know… If I'm his apprentice now, maybe I should try to emulate him.' Aiko did her best not to snicker. It was traditional, after all. A shishou was a guide for behavior and habits as well as ninjutsu—not just a teacher, but a role model. Plus… it would be really amusing. 'Who am I to spurn tradition?'

As it turned out, Kakashi-shishou did think that her idea was plausible. She had noticed that her chakra chains were heavily tinged with her water-natured chakra affinity, and wondered if it was possible to use nature transformations with them. As they were currently, her chains were just really large and versatile weapons—good for tying people or bashing them to death, and very difficult to break. (To her knowledge they were unbreakable, but it was stupid to assume that there wasn't a way just because she didn't know of it).

Since she had already gone through the trouble of learning lightning transformation and could now coerce her coils into generating lightning-natured chakra, well… Aiko resisted the urge to cackle as best as she could while she explained that she wanted to be able to electrocute with her chains since they would be excellent conductors.

"That is overkill," her shishou commented crisply, for once looking mostly engaged in the conversation. "Who do you plan on fighting, the sage of six paths? I think I can help you with it." He fixed her with a stern glare. "If you electrocute me again, however…." His voice trailed off.

"I will try to resist the urge," she grumbled, a little embarrassed. On the other side of the booth, a man she suspected was an Akimichi stifled what seemed to be a laugh.

She hadn't conducted even initial experimentation yet, because it had seemed like a stupid idea to try before asking someone who she knew had gone through the experience of making his own lightning natured technique. Frankly, she wasn't particularly eager to electrocute herself. After Kakashi returned from his mission and she managed to lure him out of his apartment with food (she was a good cook and he never seemed to have anything in his apartment), she tried for the first time under his supervision at training ground seven.

Now that she had done it, it was almost criminally easy to manifest her chakra chains again. She pointedly made only three—one to experiment on, and the other two as a control group. Her shishou had pointed out that it would be important to know if it was possible to change just one chain to lightning nature or if they would all change.

All three of them fizzled out of existence when she tried to change just one. Aiko blinked stupidly, not quite understanding what had happened.

"I wondered about that," Kakashi commented lazily. "Uzumaki chakra chains only seem to manifest in members with water-natured chakra. I don't think you'll be able to have lightning natured chains."

Aiko scowled in thought, displeased at the development. "But does that mean that I can't attach something like a chakra thread of another nature around it?" she asked after a long silence. Her teacher gave her a strange look. She hurried to demonstrate by manifesting a string and flipping her coils. "See, I can already do that. Remember that I used to think that the chakra chains worked along the same lines as chakra thread for puppeteering? I worked with those until I thought I was going to be sick."
Kakashi slapped a gloved palm to his forehead and shook his head, snickering.

"What?" she asked, offended.

"That is the most ridiculously wasteful technique I have ever heard of," he pointed out, sounding amused.
Aiko snorted in disbelief. "Yeah, whatever. Chakra threads use nothing." She demonstrated by splitting the line she was manipulating into six and wiggling it. He stilled, a strange look on his face.

"I've never seen anyone outside of Suna use more than one at once."

She raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Why? It's not that hard, and the control required isn't even up to introductory medical techniques."

"It's not a matter of difficulty per say," he started, indicating that she should maintain the strings while he walked around and checked how nuanced her control was. "The payoff isn't generally worth it. For anyone other than a puppet master, conventional wisdom says that there's no benefit to using more than one at once. For most shinobi chakra threads are an ace in the hole for when they've lost their weapons or something similar. Believe it or not, they do require a fair bit of chakra for a rookie, and by the time most shinobi get to be Chuunin they already have specialties that are much more effective than anything they could do with threads like those."

"So… my idea is worthless?" she pouted. At least they were still pretty—when she charged them with lightning natured chakra, her strings positively glittered like threads of gold.

Her shishou shook his head. "I don't think so. There's a chance that you could make your idea work, but the threads would have to be ridiculously long to be useful," he cautioned. "In order for them to wrap around the threads enough times that you can be sure they'll touch whoever you'll be touching with them, they'll have to be easily three times the length of the chains."
"That's easy enough," she muttered, trying it out.

It wasn't that easy. When she pooled the threads out long enough to be useful at all, she found that control was becoming an issue after all.

She sat cross-legged on the ground with a thump, quietly manipulating them as best as she could to figure out her limitations.
"Well, it's an interesting idea," Kakashi sighed, pulling out his book. "But it will take far more control than you currently have to make it useful at all. Remember, not only will you have to simultaneously maintain two techniques of different chakra natures, but you'll have to be able to independently control them at much larger distances than you're used to."

"In other words, chakra control exercises are next," she said miserably, unfolding her legs to sit like a rag doll, heels digging into the warm soil. She had never been prone to neglecting the basics, but it was depressing to have to work on control when she had something she wanted to develop that was infinitely more interesting.

________________________________________

Sasuke sat down across from Karin in the hospital break room, clutching onto a cup of coffee for dear life. Somehow, he hadn't expected that he would have to do the same type of grunt work other medic trainees did when he accepted Tsunade's training offer.

That had been a mistake.

Karin delicately backed up in her chair so that she wasn't in the direct path of her fellow trainee's glower. "So, long day?" she inquired. She knew it had been. Apparently, a new group of Academy trainees had gone through their first real taijutsu lesson (when they began sparring instead of just learning kata), and the waiting room had been filled with skinny eight year olds covered in bruises and scrapes. The initial injuries were actually an intentional part of the lesson—a way for Academy teachers to ensure that students knew how to get treatment at the hospital.

It was also unfortunately a training exercise for beginning medics who were qualified to treat minor injuries but had no real experience working on adjusting to foreign chakra systems and practicing their bedside manner.

Tsunade had given hilariously little training in bedside mannerisms, Karin had noted while Sasuke bulldozed through a list of jumpy kids with a white-knuckled grip on his clipboard and an expression that indicated he was considering using it to bludgeon his way to freedom. She, on the other hand, had been given strict rules and expectations about how she talked to patients.

With her temper, she had already been wrestling with that requirement much more than the actual act of healing, which she had a talent for. Two days ago some dirty old man had grabbed at her leg when she was getting a needle off the cart for an injection. It had been a tactical error. She had smiled sweetly without comment and accidentally failed to find his vein eighteen times.

She had been roundly chewed out. Something about stabbing civilians when proper procedure would be to refer them to hospital security and file sexual harassment charges?

"I had three patients who were apparently brutalized by the same Hyuuga," he deadpanned. "I'm going to be coaxing open tenketsu in my dreams."

Karin winced. "Hanabi?"

Dark eyes glared at her over his coffee. "That's her name? Little monster." She snorted, hiding her amusement at the undue hatred for a pre-genin. If he hadn't ended up having to clean up after Hanabi, Sasuke probably wouldn't have cared one way or another if the girl had decided to break two wrists a day during recess in between tea parties with pink plastic cups.

"I get the impression that she isn't as gentle as Hinata," Karin settled for diplomatically. That was an understatement. From what she understood, Hanabi was a horrible little brat and personally she thought that Hinata would be much better off if the girl hadn't been born. But Hinata was her friend, and there was something of an unspoken rule of friendship that included not telling girls that you'd prefer if their beloved little sister had never existed.

'Even when that brat is the reason they branded Hinata like a cow,' she fumed, pulling her yoghurt out of the fridge and moodily stabbing through the tin lid. The assessment might not have been fair—it wasn't Hanabi who had made the claim that by not even making a good showing in the Tournament she had embarrassed her family. But it was Hanabi who beat Hinata down in a spar with unnecessary prejudice the day before they put the caged bird seal on Hinata. Karin had been in the hospital (changing bedpans and being grumpy about it) when Hinata came in, silently crying after apparently having a painful reaction to her new tattoo. She was both glad that she didn't belong to a clan like that and absolutely fucking livid that they had done that to such a gentle girl. Hinata had explained that she was only having so much trouble because the seal was only meant to be placed on children, as if that somehow mitigated the horror of what the Hyuuga did to their own kin.

Now that she'd been reminded, Karin promised herself that she would check in on Hinata after she got off work. The poor girl had been stressed lately. She had suffered even worse nerves than usual after the sealing, which Karin didn't blame her for. It was a pretty resounding proof that her family didn't value her.

In addition to her family troubles and self esteem issues, Hinata was also dealing with disruption in her routine. Kurenai was the last Jounin sensei out of their circle of acquaintances to return from her emergency duties. An Academy class had been cycled through condensed training in the months since the invasion and had been deployed to fill the genin ranks, leaving more experienced genin to take Chuunin promotions (some of them were even prepared for those promotions). Unfortunately, that also meant that unprepared Chuunin had been promoted to Jounin to fill those ranks. Really, the only group that hadn't seen a sudden increase in mission injuries were the genin (both in-village and those attached to elite Jounin sensei).

She found the girl with Shino on training grounds 8, doing dodging exercises while he apparently worked on his throwing. Karin leaned against a tree with one foot bent up against the trunk and waited, hands shoved inside the pockets of her dress for protection from the chill. It was a windy day, and she eventually conceded defeat and tied her hair back while she waited for her friend to finish training for the day. After a few minutes, the boy paused in his shuriken assault long enough to give her an inscrutable look.

"Hinata. Do you wish to stop for the day?"

She startled like a frightened rabbit, catching the last weapon between her fingertips instead of dodging it. "W-what?"
He inclined his head towards Karin, shoving his hands inside his coat. He was probably cold too, Karin noted with an amused sniff and a hidden smile. Hinata swiveled around almost enough for a normal human to move Karin into their range of vision and visibly relaxed. "Oh! Karin-chan," she breathed.

"Yo." Karin waved before shoving her hand back into her pockets quickly. "If you're done, I make killer hot chocolate."
Shino frowned. "What does it kill? Is it poisoned? Who is the target?"

Karin's jaw dropped and she gave him a bizarre look before noting that Hinata looked equally interested in the answer. 'Ugh, ninja can be so hopeless,' she groaned. "Look, it's just an expression alright? It means that it's really good and I was inviting her back to my house. You're welcome to come too, if you'd like," she added politely. She was pretty sure he wasn't interested, but she didn't want to snub him either.

"Oh," they both said almost in unison. Hinata looked relieved, but her teammate looked disappointed. Karin heaved a sigh.
"Anyway, if you're not done I can wait," she offered, pushing at her glasses and frowning at the way they were fogging up. Hinata tilted her chin towards her teammate and began fiddling with her fingers. Karin pulled off her glasses and wiped them on her shirt before putting them back on just in time to see Shino look faintly amused.

"I think that it would be optimal for the two of us to be done with training for the day. I have yet to eat dinner, and I am certain that you are hungry as well, Hinata." He reached out and plucked his shuriken from Hinata's hand, then strode over to the far side of the clearing and began gathering his weaponry. "Thank you for the invitation, Karin-san, but I am expected at home." She nodded in acknowledgment and the girls hustled to assist him in picking weaponry. Hinata easily found the most, but Karin felt her addition of six kunai, two shuriken and a flat blade she didn't recognize was a respectable contribution to the clean-up for a practice she hadn't been part of.

"Thank you, Hinata, Karin-san." Shino gave a short bow.

Karin bowed in return, quickly followed by Hinata. "Good night, Shino-san."

"Good night, Shino-kun!" Hinata eeped when Karin grabbed at her arm and began hustling across the training grounds, burrowing into her coat for protection against the wind.

"Come on, it is way too cold to linger out here." She pulled the other girl into a run, crossing the dirt paths that led to downtown with top haste. They slowed down when they made it into Konoha proper where the tall buildings provided a wind break, and Karin gave a long stretch and yawn. "What do you think about making tekkamaki?"

As it turned out, they ran into Aiko at the grocery store, who must have been thinking of dinner as well. She was staring at the chocolate section with a vaguely stupid look on her face, so Karin took the opportunity to tug on one of her curls. She laughed in the taller redhead's face when she whirled around, barely avoiding whacking Hinata with her basket. Aiko gave Karin a dirty look. "Oh. It's you," she said flatly, grabbing a chocolate bar off the shelf at random and stuffing it into her empty basket. "Hello, Hinata. How are you?"

While Hinata muttered a greeting of some sort and fidgeted, Karin briskly informed her cousin that they were having tekkamaki and strode off in search of sushi-grade tuna. She was less than surprised when Aiko got a thoughtful expression and declared that she wanted to make sweet potato hosumaki as well. Aiko had a strange fondness for vegetables that Karin would rather leave alone. At least it wasn't thrice-damned ramen.

The three girls collected everything they needed, Hinata awkwardly lugging a large bottle of the watermelon flavored water she liked to drink in the morning, and waved at a bored-looking Nara Shikamaru following around a woman dressed in tan who must be his mother (she had a similar nose and a no-nonsense attitude that manifested in the way she shoved heavy items in the basket he was carrying) before heading out the door.

While they had gone to the closest grocery store, there was still quite a walk back to the Uzumaki residence. There were very few civilian-ran establishments in the largely shinobi areas of town, so it was probably lucky that they were all in excellent physical condition. Still, Karin was relieved when they reached the garden out front.

Karin somehow managed to pry her cold fingers out from under her bag, tucking it against her chest with her open arm, and nudged open the door with a foot. She flounced in first, leaving her sandals in a messy heap and slipping into her glittery red house shoes before tripping into the house and dumping the large paper sack in her arms onto the table. Hinata and Aiko exchanged amused glances, pushing their shoes up much more neatly against the sides of the room before Aiko dug out her own blue slippers (a fluffy affair with sparkly green turtles that Naruto had ripped off cheap necklaces and sewn on as a joke gift). Hinata was such a frequent houseguest in the last month that Karin had actually gone and purchased her a personal pair of slippers (Karin didn't believe in communal shoes, they were the devil's work). Of course, since Karin had picked them, they didn't much suit Hinata at all, but she gamely slipped them on and somehow managed to look pleased as punch about wearing hot pink shoes. She was probably just grateful to feel welcome somewhere. Judging by how often she slept over, Karin was really certain that all was not well at the Hyuuga home.

"I think I have this pretty well in hand," Aiko called, striding into the kitchen and flipping on the lights. "The kitchen is a bit too small for three cooks." Karin shrugged and barely managed to rescue an orange from rolling off the table—she wasn't much of a cook anyways.

"Fine by me, but tell me when you're almost done so I can start hot chocolate. Hey, Hinata, want to put in a movie?" Karin punched on the television and cast an inquiring look at her friend.

"Oh, yum," Aiko mumbled to herself, clattering around for a cutting board.

Hinata looked between the two before gracefully picking her way into the living room. The cat sleeping in the exact center of the couch opened one eye sleepily to glare at her and then closed it again. "Ano, where are the movies?"

"I think most of them are in my room," Aiko called absentmindedly. Karin rolled her eyes. Aiko had the weird habit of dragging the movies into her bedroom. There wasn't a television in there, but she did have nearly floor-to-ceiling shelves where she stored a downright frightening amount of books. The top left shelf was all movies in perfect alphabetical order, pushed back against the wall so that none of them stuck out. Books were arranged similarly below. Her cousin was pretty weird sometimes. Who cared if their books and movies were in alphabetical order? Karin was much more likely to have a pile of her ten favorites by her bedside, coffee table, and by the television.

Nonetheless, she led her friend into Aiko's room because she knew Hinata would be uncomfortable going into someone's bedroom alone. Hinata's eyes widened at the ridiculous display of books. "I've never heard of most of these," she said quietly, running her gaze over the titles. "The little red book of writing?" Hinata squinted. "…historical fashion? Icha Icha Make- eep!" Hinata pulled her hands back, flushing bright red. "Ah, she has an eclectic collection," the girl practically squeaked, turning her attention back to the movies and wrapping her arms around her body.

Karin snorted. "You're telling me," she groused. "I think she wrote like a third of them. The ones with the unlabeled covers—see, they're just dimestore books, like for notes and sketches and stuff. She won't let me read them though. I bet they're really bad." She poked at a green and purple hard cover.

"I'm sure they're good," Hinata said rather loyally, grabbing one of the few titles she was familiar with off the top shelf. Karin leaned in to check the title and was relieved to see it was actually one of the ones she had purchased—a historical drama about a samurai and the girl he married. Spoiler- she was an undercover kunoichi who had been hired to ensure he failed, but it all worked out when she defected.

"Nice," she approved. In the front room she lit the cherry blossom scented tea candles that Aiko kept on tea saucers for some reason and pulled out extra pillows and blankets from the hall cupboard.

"Karin, if you want to start hot chocolate now would be a good time," Aiko called from the other room.

"Oh, crap. Coming!" Karin hustled in, Hinata following at her heels like a duckling. The brunette settled at the kitchen table politely and flipped through the book sitting there- a guide to native flora and fauna with medicinal uses that Karin had left out the night before.

"Did you know that Sasuke signed Tsunade's summoning contract?" Karin half-asked, half informed while she pulled open the cupboard and withdrew measuring cups and a pot. She'd found that out on break. Hinata sounded politely interested, but Aiko made a genuinely baffled face at the news.

"It seems really early in his apprenticeship to start that, doesn't it?" She scraped perfectly seasoned rice out of the pot and into a bowl and started cutting dried nori, moving to the side to give Karin room to work.

Karin shrugged philosophically, measuring out milk and cocoa and dumping them directly into the pan with a glob of butter. "I dunno, maybe Tsunade is taking advantage of how much chakra he has. It's nothing on you or Naruto, but he's no slouch." She critically eyed the mixture and then added extra sugar with a faintly guilty expression and a none-too-subtle poke at her flat stomach.

"I don't know much about summoning contracts," Hinata ventured, flipping a page and leaning down to examine an illustration more closely. Her face tightened. "My honored father has one, but only Clan Heads sign it. I…. I was under the impression that they required large amounts of chakra to utilize, so Karin-chan's suggestion seems sound."

Karin stepped over the elephant in the room that trumpeted around and stomped on peanuts at the reminder that Hinata would never be signing that contract. "Pass the dark chocolate, would you?" She began shaving off tiny curls to garnish the whipped topping while the cocoa began to simmer.

"I got a letter from Naruto today postmarked last week," Aiko changed the subject. Hinata looked up none too subtly, and Karin stifled a grin. That girl practically jumped half a foot every time someone said his name.

"Oh?" Hinata prodded, unusually aggressive.

Aiko gave her an amused glance, pausing in spooning hot rice out onto nori. "Yes, his training is going well from what I gather. He isn't allowed to tell me where he's been or anything, but the letter was sent from Tea Country of all the places. Apparently his shishou taught him a genjutsu."

"That's interesting," Hinata commented thoughtfully. "I didn't know that Naruto-san had a knack for genjutsu."

Aiko barked a surprised laugh. "He doesn't, not at all," she confided conspiratorially, giving downright frightening attention to precisely arranging raw tuna slices. "I bet it was hard work for him. In fact, I don't think he ever figured out that Iruka-sensei's Big Head no Jutsu is actually a genjutsu. I used to get him out of bed sometimes with an olfactory genjutsu of cookies baking. The look on his face, every time..."

Hinata giggled. "That's a little bit unkind, isn't it?" She splayed a hand out on the table as if examining her chipped nail polish.
"Nah," the girl dismissed, squeezing the bamboo roller and unfolding it to reveal another perfectly formed roll. She set it on the plate with the others and began working on the last roll. Karin gave her cousin a weird look.

"Are we really going to eat that much?" she asked a bit skeptically.

Aiko furrowed her brow and looked at the food she'd made as if she was a bit surprised to see it. "I guess I'm cooking on auto," she said after a pause. Then she shrugged. "Whatever we don't eat will go in bento tomorrow, I suppose. You'll take one too, right Hinata?"

Karin made a face. "Second day tuna?"

Her cousin made a face at her. "We'll eat those first, okay? Ugh, nag nag nag." She stuck her tongue out at the shorter girl. Hinata stifled a giggle while Aiko changed the subject to ask Karin about medical chakra control exercises. She didn't know anyone quite like the Uzumaki family. She wasn't entirely sure if that was a tragedy or good for Konoha's relatively peaceful atmosphere. If she didn't manage to marry Naruto, she was going to have to marry Karin instead so that she could stay here forever.

Chapter Text

Uchiha Itachi looked once more at the picture of his target, Uzumaki Naruto, and considered banging his head against the wall. It would be most undignified and out of character, but then again, so was the fact that he had managed to overlook the fact that his otouto's sensei had taken one student before the team with the jinchuuriki. Just one—which was more than a bit unusual. Even Itachi himself had been on a genin team (if only for about a month).

He had sent a query with a mutual contact about young, red-headed kunoichi in Konoha's active forces in an attempt to figure out who that girl had been. There couldn't possibly be very many, he had thought. Only about a third of the active forces were female, only 26 percent of which were under the age of twenty, and he knew that the vast majority of Konoha's citizens were far less colorful than those of Mist or Snow.

As it turned out, there were only two kunoichi who fit his description, and both of them shared a last name with his jinchuuriki target.

When he had received the initial briefing on his target, it hadn't taken Itachi long at all to put a few pieces of information together and come to a few conclusions. He certainly hadn't missed the connection between the boy's birthday and the day that he was sealed, and his last name implied that he was a direct relative of the former jinchuuriki. Public records listed that woman as one Uzumaki Kushina who had been listed as dying on the day of the nine tails' attack. The fact that his sister shared a shade of this Kushina's unusual hair color seemed to lend credence to the theory that she was their mother and not some other relative.

It seemed most likely that the woman had died in childbirth in a Madara-assisted tragedy and it had been covered up for some reason, Itachi had surmised. Perhaps it had been intended to prevent her name from being smeared after her death by upset villagers looking for a scapegoat for the horrors of that day? If that had been the intention, it had worked well enough. Itachi remembered the confusion of the days after October tenth and the moment that fingers had seemed to point at the Uchiha clan on the basis of a legend.

If Madara was to be believed, the villagers had been onto the correct path of deductive reasoning even if the people they pointed fingers at were innocent. However, when they turned their resentment towards the new jinchuuriki after his identity became clear, they had failed to show such clarity of vision.

After all, it was obvious even to Itachi who had no memories of seeing the man in person that this Uzumaki Naruto was the child of the fourth Hokage. The resemblance was far too strong for any other conclusion to be reached. Unless Namikaze Minato was an absolute monster of a man, he would not have sealed a demon inside his own child without being certain that it was safe. Itachi was certain that both of those children were kept under tight supervision. It would explain Jiraiya's connection to the girl and why he was taking a personal interest in Naruto when conventional wisdom would have indicated that the boy should have been kept within the village while S class criminals hunted him. Konoha's jinchuuriki was a treasure of the country for more than just the contents of the ink on his belly.

That heritage meant, he concluded rather bitterly, that the twin of the jinchuuriki may well be a person of interest on her own merits rather than as a note about a possible weakness to use against Naruto. No child of the Red Chained Death and the fourth Hokage would be content with mediocrity.

Still, no amount of Uzumaki sealing or Namikaze speed (he had been doing a lot of reading up on the two figures he had previously only known about in a passing sense) would explain the girl's strange visions. Unless it was a bloodline ability that had been concealed? Very possible, he concluded. Anyone with sense at all could tell that it was a very dangerous ability that could easily be misused. If the Uchiha had really had the predictive powers they boasted about, they would have denied everything that hinted at the ability and hoarded it as best as they could.

Then again, if it had been an Uzumaki trait, their village probably wouldn't have been destroyed, Itachi mused rather wryly. He struggled not to let any irritation rise. 'This is an unproductive line of reasoning.' He blinked slowly, lifting his head to view the sunrise outside his window. 'Without more information about how such an ability would function, I cannot draw conclusions about what limitations it may possess or what a user would do with it.'

What was more important, Itachi decided, was determining if he should act on the information he had unwittingly stumbled upon or not. His initial plan had been to stall retrieving the Nine-Tails for as long as possible and feeding Jiraiya information that would hopefully lead to the incapacitation of Akatsuki personnel to prevent their goals.

It seemed unlikely that the girl would do anything to interfere with those aims. Perhaps it would just be best to gather what information he could and step carefully.

________________________________________
There was an awkward four-way stare off between Aiko and the three genin she would be leading on a short messenger mission as a way to get them a little experience outside of the village and give her experience with command. She swallowed, hard.

The genin just looked so… tiny. Had she really been that small only two years ago? 'No,' her mind supplied. 'I was one of the tallest kids in the Academy when I was nine. At their age, I must have been four inches taller than that.' A voice that sounded a little like Sasuke's was laughing hysterically at her somewhere in the back of her head. She resolved to never let him know about this mission if it didn't go well.

They didn't exactly look impressed with her either, to be fair. They were probably not expecting a thirteen year old Chuunin who didn't even wear her flak jacket.

She spent a moment wondering where the hell that thing was. The one they'd given her at age eleven had been far too large to wear. Maybe it was in the back of her closet somewhere.

The three children in front of her (and they seemed like children, even if those headbands made them adults) were from the group that Tsunade had bumped up into the genin corps to free up more experienced ninja to take the missions the village desperately needed to function. They probably weren't happy knowing that they wouldn't be getting a real Jounin sensei until the village found its equilibrium again, but they were at least smart enough not to voice the doubts they were obviously having. Their best chance for escaping the trap that the genin corps sometimes became was to find a sponsor in an upper level peer… like Aiko.

She cleared her throat and pasted on a smile. "Ohayo, I'm Uzumaki Aiko and I will be your team leader." There was a beat of silence while the eleven year olds glanced at each other with varying levels of skepticism and uncertainty.

Aiko committed to memory that the girl with the sleek black pigtails and blue eyeshadow in a white halter top and slit blue skirt was Akira, the dirty blonde boy beside her in a green sleeveless tee was Ken, and that the other little girl, a shy thing with shaggy bangs who was practically swimming in loose yellow clothing, was Emiko. She led them to the red bridge her team liked to meet at before folding her legs and encouraging them to sit on the sun-warmed wood as well to look over the mission brief.
"Have any of you been outside the village before?" At the three heads that shook silently, Aiko sighed and leaned back. She readied herself for a lecture. "All right then. The town we are going to is near our closest border outpost, normally manned by Chuunin," she started easily, cracking one eye open to be sure they were paying attention. "Can anyone tell me why that this mission is going to be run by a team of genin instead of a single Chuunin posted on border duty?"

Akira was apparently insightful enough to guess that the Chuunin at the border were basically glorified genin. When her teammates gave her scornful looks, Aiko cut in by ruffling the girl's hair.

"That's right, actually. In much the same way that you three were promoted before you were to normal genin standards because we desperately needed to fill the ranks, so have they been promoted. Therefore, while it is normally acceptable to take one Chuunin off patrol to run messages, we will be doing that off and on for a few weeks so that the border outpost doesn't lose any strength. Does anyone think they know what all they will need to bring for a mission like this? Feel free to ask questions."
"Um…" Emiko bit at her lower lip and looked down. "Should we bring full camping equipment? I mean, it's pretty warm this time of year, and they're so heavy that we won't be moving very fast if we carry them everywhere."

"Good question, but I think you'll be surprised by how cold it gets at night," Aiko informed in an amused tone. "I would pack a change of clothing other than what you wear out of the village, at least one of which is for colder weather. Normally you would be right about camping equipment, but I will have that under control. I need to practice my sealing anyways. So when we meet, lug your sleeping bags along if you have them. If not, at least one warm blanket."

"Weapons?" Emiko asked with more confidence this time.

"No more than you can carry in your holster, and only the kind you are most skilled with," Aiko confirmed. "I hope you all had good survival scores, because I will be making sure you can take care of gathering and preparing food within Konoha's borders on this trip." She made a face. Because the class had been graduated half a year early, they hadn't yet completed their curriculum. That meant she might be walking sobbing children through their first time skinning a bunny rabbit. Joy.
They gave each other uneasy looks, but let that pass without comment.

Then Aiko broached the topic that Kakashi never had with his genin team. "Your outfits," she started, watching with some amusement when all three of them glanced down, "are unsuitable for field work. I expect to see you report for duty with close-fitting clothing of dark or camouflage coloring and any flapping sleeves or such secured with bandages or clips that won't snag. Mesh or other light armor is recommended, and I don't want to see any polyester blends. That means cotton or other breathable fabrics. Does anyone not have clothing like that in their wardrobe?"

When two hands went up and the other wavered uncertainly, Aiko heaved a sigh and wondered why the hell the Academy didn't make this point more often.

She swiveled her ankles to place her feet flat on the red painted wood and stood up without bothering to unfold her legs, letting her left leg slide over to stabilize her weight. "Alright then, follow me kiddies. I will finance exactly one work appropriate outfit for all three of you, since I know you haven't been earning much yet. But I will be very disappointed if I don't see that you've added to it in a month or so. I know that weapons and food are important, but your clothes are ninja gear too."

The next day, she and her three mini-me ninjas (clad in long-sleeved tunics much like her own, complete with adorable little masks that Ken had been decidedly unhappy about) met at the gate. Izumo didn't bother to hide his snorts of laughter, eventually descending into desk-slapping hysterics. Aiko tapped her foot, unamused and with her lips pressed so tightly together that they were turning white.

That was about when Kotetsu looked up from his paperwork, scrunched up his face at his idiotic coworker in disgust, and then caught sight of Aiko and her three genin. His face turned green.

"Am I seeing things, or has Hatake finally figured out how to reproduce by splitting in thirds?" he half-whispered as if afraid to catch her attention.

Aiko turned bright red, cheeks coloring under the half-mask and slapped down her mission orders with more force than necessary. "Cut the crap, please" she snapped briskly. They didn't have to be such total dicks all the time. Okay, so maybe she hero worshiped her shishou a little bit. But that didn't give them license to mock her. He was actually a really freaking awesome shinobi. On his worst day, blinded and with both hands tied behind his back, he could easily put the hurt down on the two of them at once. They had no right to be anything less than reverent towards such a fine specimen. Besides, his preferences in mission gear were both practical and good-looking.

"Sure thing senpai," Izumo wheezed, not noticing his coworker disengaging from the conversation and snatching the last of his cruller.

She reached over and hit him upside the head. It took a few minutes of glowering and paper stamping to get them out of the village, at which point her ducklings tried to give her inquisitive looks. "Don't ask," she practically growled. "They're just jealous."

The eleven year olds noted her stomping and clenched fists. Wisely, none of them commented, though they did exchange looks behind her back that they probably assumed she didn't sense.

It quickly became clear that the genin were still innocent enough to be delighted by their first trip out of the village walls. Not for the first time, Aiko wondered if the strictly enforced restriction of travel was actually intended to cause children to associate the freedom outside with the glamour of being a ninja and not something that everyone should be able to experience. She said nothing, however. It wasn't a productive area of discussion, especially when she was the only person she knew whose formative ideals hadn't been purposefully engendered as part of Konoha's military culture.

She drove them at a grueling pace to the outpost more because it was professional than because she needed to work off irritation, stopping only once for a twenty minute break and sympathetically watched them struggle to get down as much water as possible with shaking fingers, flopping down onto the cool dirt.

"Slow down," she cautioned mildly after giving them a few minutes to make bad decisions. They probably wouldn't want to listen, but it would only be fair to give them the information to make the right choice. They'd remember it later. "You'll regret it if you make yourself sick. Use small, constant sips. And don't just fall over like a dead cat, stretch so that you don't get cramps."
'Wow, timid little Emiko has an unexpectedly fierce glare,' Aiko noted. Outwardly, she gave them a big silly grin that she was sure they could see through her mask. That surety was partially based on the fact that Akira grit her teeth and began breathing slowly through them as if she was counting her breaths. She forced her smile to move upwards, creasing her eyes. One of them actually managed to achieve mild killing intent.

'Hey, this is actually pretty fun,' she giggled to herself while doing her own stretches. She was just doing what she had to do—keeping them on task and moving at a respectable speed. The transition from training to be a shinobi and even introductory level shinobi active duty wasn't an easy one.

"Okay kids, break's over!" She did her best not to relish the overly-dramatic wails that came after. It was a veritable chorus of "that wasn't twenty minutes!"

It hadn't been. It was twenty three minutes, but breaks always felt too short when you were still coming down from a stomach-churning workout.

The next time that they stopped, it was for the night. It felt more than a bit silly to spend more than one day en route to the outpost. On her own, Aiko could have made the trip in about five hours. Her shishou undoubtedly could have done it in four. But luckily for her poor genins' sake, Aiko had possessed the foresight to ask Iruka-sensei as to just what speed she could safely push fresh genin to. The surprise on his face had indicated that either the common sense approach to information gathering was rare or that Iruka wasn't usually the person people asked. She wasn't sure if she should be depressed by that lack of practical habits or wonder if there was something wrong with Iruka's assessments that would lead people to avoid asking him those types of questions.

As it turned out, Ken had the quickest reflexes and brought down a hare first. When Emiko brought down the second, she had them skin and prepare them while Akira gathered wood, lit the fire, and went out on a short hunt for edible berries.
She split the watch into two-hour segments that night, taking the last watch herself and running a short perimeter check while Emiko practically crawled back into her sleeping bag with gummy eyes.

When tummies grumbled and the bags had been re-sealed back into one of the short scrolls Aiko tucked into her hip pouch, she withdrew four energy bars and passed them out. "If we hurry, we can pick up our package and stop for lunch at a teashop close to the outpost," she said mildly, knowing perfectly well that the thought of real food would be irresistible after having those terrible bars for two days in a row.

She let Ken take point and set the pace when they left again, taking the rear position so that she could keep them all in sight and keep an eye out for threats. It would be pretty terrible to have her genin swiped out from behind her on her very first command. Aiko was pleased to note that her admonishment about speed had been taken into account and Ken was setting a pace that had both him and Akira panting. Emiko took much longer to seem to give out steam, face flushing pink about the time that her teammates first had to take a five minute breather for drinks.

"We need to veer east," she advised mildly, letting Ken choose the exact path. She would have taken to a higher route through the trees, but the rookie genin were all unfortunately still bound by gravity's rules and had to take the somewhat more circuitous route around the thickest copses of trees.

Of all the people in the world who could have been manning the outpost, Shikamaru was the Chuunin who ambled out to meet them. He shook his head wordlessly, giving the panting genin a somewhat pitying look. "She made you run the whole way, did she?" Dark eyes passed over Aiko's sweat-free form. "I'm glad you weren't my sensei, Aiko-senpai."

Akira lifted her head to give Aiko a strange look, darting back and forth between the two Chuunin. Her expression was most politely described as 'incredulous'. Aiko was mildly offended. She was the same age as Shikamaru and about as tall as he was. He didn't really look any more impressive than she did. Maybe it was that damn vest? Goddamn, she was going to dig through her closet when she got home. If the smallest size fit Shikamaru's skinny ribs, hers should work fine now that she was older.
Of course Shikamaru caught the look. "When are you getting promoted?" he prodded, giving a slight smirk at the way she glowered. "If I'm Chuunin material, you're Jounin material."

"What, you want to share all the fun you're having?" she asked dryly. Then she shrugged artlessly. "It's a long story, that begins and ends with Kakashi-shishou mouthing off to a Hokage and telling them they aren't qualified to make decisions about promotions. There may have been pointed comments about someone's alcoholism and relative lack of intelligence. At this point, I think it would be best if I just let Tsunade-sama forget I exist so as not to draw any attention. I'm fine with Chuunin clearance anyway."

The boy snorted. "Bet she liked that." Shikamaru dug around in his hip pouch, extracting a brown paper bundle tied with blue string. "Here. It's too troublesome to hold onto this longer than I have to. My supervisor keeps checking to make sure I haven't lost it. It almost seems like they don't trust me or something."

Aiko snorted. "That's an adorable package," she deadpanned, unzipping her own pouch and tucking the surprisingly hefty 4x4x2 box inside.

It was in fact very cute, but the colored string was actually a message itself. It would have been yellow if the missive had been top priority. As it was, a blue stringed message wasn't worth dying to protect. More importantly, it meant that she hadn't lied to her genin about stopping for lunch.

She withdrew her own package from her thigh holster. Shikamaru raised an eyebrow but didn't comment about the fact that she had sealed everything inside a scroll instead of carrying it normally. It hadn't been an impossible amount of material—a few letters with updated orders, a package from someone's sweetheart that she suspected contained baked goods, and a few porno mags and personal items that had been unofficially entrusted to Aiko when word got out that she would be making the deliveries between Konoha and the outpost for the next few weeks. Officially, such things were contraband and personal belongings other than regular letters from family were not allowed on base.

Unofficially, it was widely accepted that border duty was magically even more fucking boring when one was off duty and extracurricular reading material was traded for prices that luxury goods were back home.

Aiko certainly didn't mind bringing the reading material with her; although a couple of the men who'd handed them to her seemed to expect to be beaten roundly about the head. She wasn't sure if the fact that they expected her to scream 'hentai' but had delivered it anyway meant that they were brave or just stupid. There was a fairly good chance that anyone who gave a thirteen year-old known for a cool head reason to scream about perverts would end up full of holes before Anko stopped to evaluate the situation. She did so love to puncture things.

Aiko did, however, mind the idea of passing adult contraband out to her bright-eyed genin to stick in their packs and carry. They were eleven, after all. Hence the sealing scroll.

"There's a 100 ryo delivery charge," she half-joked, trying not to wince at the idea of the expense she'd sunk into sealing it. That wasn't particularly cheap, and it hadn't been for her benefit.

"Ha, no." Shikamaru stuck his hands in his pockets and slouched, looking upwards like he was praying for strength. "I suppose I should get back to work now."

"Not likely," Aiko deadpanned. She turned a critical eye to her ducklings. "Does anyone need to rest a little longer, or are we ready to set out?"

Her brave trio of genin agreed that they were ready to leave (probably thinking with their stomachs) so she waved absentmindedly to Shikamaru and a woman she didn't know who yanked the scroll out of his hands and began to unfurl it before they had even set off.

________________________________________

The sun was cruel and yellow like the eye of a snake, sending punishing lashes down on her deceptively frail shoulders even through the material of her kimono. Temari flushed with heat, eyes darting back and forth between the two males arguing. She considered cutting in, but her newfound bravery around Gaara only went so far. It wasn't like he wanted anything ridiculous, after all. Better let him deal with it.

While all three of the siblings had been promoted to Chuunin after the far-too-eventful exams in Konoha (mostly because Gaara had informed the Council that they had been promoted and left without another word while they sputtered), they had been sent on very few missions as a team. This was in large part because the triumvirate of Sand elders jockeying for power and position placed very little trust in Gaara. She suspected that this mission was largely a trust exercise. Someone was sticking out their neck to demonstrate that the demon container could be controlled for the first time in his life and sent on a mundane mission. If they were wrong, there would doubtlessly be hell to pay. If Gaara snapped in Konoha and so much as stepped on a housewife's toes, Suna could very well be manhandled into even more painful settlements and treaties.

Of course, it was also possible that Gaara had delivered one of his once-frequent threats in order to finagle a rather extended trip to Konoha because he wanted to see his friend. Either way, it mattered little to Temari. Regardless of why, she was taking him back to the place that had changed his mind about defining himself in opposition to every other living being. Temari thought it was a bit of a hellhole- unpleasantly damp, full of loud and obnoxiously dressed weirdoes, and definitely more than a little bit hostile to Suna nin lately- but she was going to have to go and make nice with the Hokage regardless.

It still seemed strange to her that one fight could have altered her baby brother so much. It was almost a shame that she had been cowering behind a copse of trees for most of it and missed whatever the hell Uzumaki Naruto had said to convince Gaara to change his entire philosophy of life. Sometimes she woke up in the morning, saw the sand on her bedroom floor that indicated Gaara had checked on her during the night, and suffered a panic attack that constricted her throat and made it impossible for her to breathe before she remembered that he no longer wanted to hurt her. The absence of the threat almost weighed more heavily on her mind than the ever-present danger had for years.

They set off for the Land of Fire without words. Kankuro was not with them for this mission, a fact that would have worried her far more if she didn't know that he would be safely ensconced in his workroom while they were gone.

This mission was important, of course, but Temari, who had been trained in niceties since she was old enough to toddle, was really the only one being sent as a diplomat. Gaara had definitely not had many of those lessons, a fact which she had awkwardly tried to remedy in the past week when she heard he would be coming with her. With Gaara included on the team, she needed no other escort. It would have been too threatening to send another member at this delicate stage of negotiations. Besides, Sand had been so weakened by the failed invasion and Orochimaru's misuse of their forces that even the removal of a single talented Chuunin from the village could mean the difference between an adequate response force within the village walls in case of an emergency and being totally overrun.

That was probably why Councilman Shu had been arguing with Gaara about going, she idly noted. Despite being frightened of Gaara, all in Sand respected his strength.

She let him set the pace. It was no skin off her back if Gaara wanted to travel at insane speeds. Kankuro wouldn't have been able to keep up. Temari herself was misusing wind jutsu in order to travel on top of her fan while her red-headed brother sprinted like a man possessed. He didn't do things by halves, Gaara.

Of course, he didn't sweat either, she pouted when they reached the oasis where they habitually stopped to refill their water skins. It was unfair. The barrier of sand that protected his skin from even fatal glows also seemed to keep Gaara's porcelain skin safe from wind and sun burn. She wasn't utilizing the air-based jutsu that kept the hot air off her skin with a cushion of artificially cooled air—it was stupidly difficult to maintain while flying at high speeds, and the gusts she experienced on top of her fan kept her from getting too hot.

They didn't save her from minor sunburn, however, so she took a moment to withdraw her little blue pot of lotion and rub it onto her cheeks and the back of her neck while they stopped. Gaara's nose flared as if the scent bothered him, but he gave no comment.
________________________________________

Is it just me, or does this chapter have a completely different feel from last chapter? Possibly it's the sleep deprivation. In any case, I start classes again on the 21st, so updates will almost certainly slow down. I suppose it will depend on my class load and how much interest there seems to be, hint hint. :) If no one cares much, it may drop down to every other week or worse.

As always, I'm finishing this at about four am and haven't had anyone read it over, so I may have missed a few typos. If there's anything particularly mortifying, I'd appreciate a heads up. Detail-oriented readers may notice that I had an attack of crazy in my last few chapters and kept stating that Aiko was fourteen when she is in fact thirteen. No, that year didn't go anywhere, and no, she didn't time travel back to being thirteen. I was just confused. I do that sometimes.

Chapter Text

"He's not in the village," Tsunade deadpanned, stamping a form with more force than necessary. Her desk shuddered. Shizune slipped the paperwork out from her reach, tucking it into a manila folder and holding it to her chest. She gave her Hokage an admonishing look. Tsunade rolled her eyes and scrabbled around in her top drawer for an envelope. She labeled it in the same imperious, elegant handwriting that graced the invitation that Temari clutched awkwardly with clammy fingers. The office building was cold, damnit.

Gaara seemed momentarily speechless, staring blankly out the window behind the busty woman growling about the indignity about being strong-armed into mundane paperwork in front of snot-nosed diplomats when she was supposed to be impressing them.

Temari rather thought that not referring to her as "snot-nosed" to her face would have done more for her opinion of the woman than whether or not she was doing paperwork.

That didn't mean she was going to say anything about being offended, however. She wasn't stupid. The village she headed may have been full of sissies, but the Slug Sannin herself was rather famously ill-tempered and punch-happy.

At her side, Gaara gave a slight frown. Temari felt a little sorry for him—he must have been eager to see his friend again if he'd actually made the effort to get onto the mission roster. He'd never had a friend before, so this disappointment would be a new one. She steeled herself for a moment before reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder. He turned to blink at her, gaze flicking down to her hand, posture relaxing oh-so-slightly.

Tsunade looked up irritably, pushing herself to a standing position and striding to the door. "Well, come on then, girl. I haven't got all day."

Shizune flushed a pretty pink, carefully not looking at the foreign guests lingering in the office doorway. "Please, this way please, Temari-san." She bustled down the hall towards a small conference room, then glance back uncertainly. "Will, um, Gaara-san be joining us?"

Surprised, Temari had to disguise her laugh as a cough. "Not if we're still hoping to negotiate peace," she deadpanned. Gaara didn't react. There was some truth to that statement. He had made significant improvement on social interaction in the months since he had re-examined his life. But negotiations were more suited to someone with more practice and a more nuanced understanding of rules like 'Don't kill someone who has something you want,' 'People don't like being reminded of their imminent mortality,' and 'Please don't smile like that, it frightens everyone.' (He had compromised by not smiling at all, which was still a bit unnerving.)

"Well…" Shizune cleared her throat. "Then feel free to explore Konoha, Gaara-san."

"Just meet me at the apartment for dinner?" Temari offered, knowing that he'd do what he felt like. He seemed to shrug. Then he was gone in a wisp of sand.

The obviously civilian receptionist gave a small curse, clutching at her chest. Temari wondered at that- she had never seen anyone below Chuunin in a similar job back home. Konoha was strange.

One newly-promoted Sand Chuunin, even the daughter of a Kazekage, was hilariously outgunned in the company of a Hokage and her two apprentices. So of course, the room was also populated by two hulking ANBU operatives. Seriously, Konoha must have found goons that big with a specially placed ad. Temari felt her plastered smile falter and did her best not to look too skeptical of the ice gently rotating in the clear pitcher of water in the center of the table. Logically, she knew that if they wanted her dead, they wouldn't poison her. That didn't help much when she knew that she had been the only delegate sent so that Sand could cut their losses if the Leaf decided that the damage they had caused outweighed whatever benefits an alliance would give them. She was technically qualified for this mission, but if the elders had possessed much faith in it, they would have come themselves.

'Then again,' Temari remembered with a sideways smile that seemed to offend the pretty-boy sitting across the table, 'the elders really hate Leaf from the last war still. They may not want this alliance to work out.' If she could make that happen, it would be a resounding victory for whatever side she threw her support behind. She wasn't formidable enough to make a bid for her father's hat herself just yet, but she knew damn well that her words carried weight.

________________________________________

"It was nice to meet you." Aiko gave a short bow to Ken's mother, a voluptuous woman with a pixie cut and heavily scarred hands. The door shut on her face after they exchanged a few niceties- thank you for taking care of my boy, thank you for the tea, so on and so forth. As soon as the door was closed, she took the opportunity to discreetly adjust that damned vest she was wearing. It was uncomfortable and unflattering. She wasn't entirely sure she liked it, even if it did signal that she wasn't a child.

After they had gone out on their second run to the closest outpost, they had been mildly surprised to receive orders to run messages to the next two outposts. From what she understood, people were being pulled home and border security finally relaxed from emergency status. Understandably, people had been happy to see her team. Her team had been less happy about spending an extra six nights in the wild, although there was enough space for them to take up beds at the last outpost for a night. There had been a throw-down fight over first rights to the showers. Aiko had laughed herself sick when they finally figured out that the water was all cold—the luxurious of home were hard to get in a forest.

By the time they returned to the village, the genin were finally comfortable enough with her to get a bit sassy. Before, they had been nearly silent in her presence. They must have been closer in the Academy than most of her classmates had been, because they had tons of inside jokes that they seemed to find absolutely hilarious. She'd been a bit bemused when they gradually became comfortable enough to have conversations around her, but generally just stayed silent and learned about them.

It turned out that Ken was a third-generation nin whose grandparents had come from Sand. They'd immediately changed their last name to something more suitable for Fire Country, but the boy bemoaned that his grandmother refused to adjust her way of speaking and actually artificially emphasized her accent to show that she wasn't ashamed of her girlhood home. It came up because Ken ended up translating whatever she said to his friends when they came over. Occasionally, he slipped and used terminology or slang that he'd picked up from her, and the girls liked to tease him about it.

Akira had reminded Aiko of Ino, but it soon became clear that the resemblance was only a superficial one—they were both snappy dressers and moved with confidence. Akira was actually very mature, and thought that her peers should be as well. Naruto might have liked her—she loved animals as much as he did. For her, that manifested in learning about them instead of catching and snuggling them as it did in Naruto (bless his heart). She could list the technical names and dietary habits of just about every creature native to Fire Country and kept a scrapbook of photos. To serve that end, she kept a camera with her at all times, lovingly wrapped up in a waterproof leather pouch. Her family must have a lot of means—such a thing was not cheap.

The student that Aiko had most misjudged was the last one. Emiko had seemed sweet and shy and dressed as bashfully as Hinata. Apparently, her daddy was a single father and wanted a little princess. The girlish wardrobe was his doing, not hers. Additionally, it soon became clear that her mind was sharp and her tongue even sharper. Her peers hadn't caught on yet, but every third bashful statement was in fact a veiled insult at their expense. She tried not to laugh too hard and instead made comments about Emiko's excellent vocabulary.

The last of her genin returned safely to their homes and mission report firmly in hand, Aiko was slightly travel worn and thirsty. She was also surprised to spot the boy who would be Kazekage looking a bit lost in front of Hokage tower, watching passers-by with an intensity that made several of them hustle. Shamefully, some of them were even ninja.

It was pretty funny, she admitted to herself. He wasn't even letting off killing intent. Maybe it was the month-old blood stains on his clothing that put them off. Or the dead-eyed stare. Or the fact that he had a Sand headband and appeared to be roaming unsupervised (she knew better. Tsunade would have ANBU tailing him).

For the first time, she realized that she knew very little about what happened to Gaara in the time between the Chuunin exams and his abduction by Akatsuki. Was he already the man who measured his words and hoped for peace? Did he still slip into madness? Or was he somewhere in between, in an amorphous state of becoming a man when he had been a monster instead of a boy?

'Only one way to find out,' she decided impulsively. It was a selfish decision to satisfy her curiosity, but a small one.

It was also possibly stupid. She held no grudge against him at all for attempting to kill her, especially since she didn't think it had been his fault. He wasn't responsible for Shukaku, or for her misusing what she knew about Naruto's nature. She had made the conscious decision to leap into the fray so that Naruto would find the strength to draw on the Nine-Tails and stop him, after all.

But she could hardly tell anyone else that she wasn't mad at him at all because she had just been using him to injure her, not least so because the Nine-Tails was kind of a taboo topic. Anyone with sense would probably be alarmed to see her spending time with him amiably.

Ah, to hell with it. She didn't care what anyone else thought.

Aiko idly crumpled her report and shoved it into a pocket, not minding the ugly way it bulged. She could take care of it later or something. 'The real question is how to approach him.' She was careful not to look at him too long and draw attention prematurely. Should she observe him from a distance? That could be dangerous- no ninja liked sneaky followers. Then again, he probably wasn't socially competent enough to have a regular conversation.

Then she rolled her eyes. 'What am I saying? If Naruto got through to him, being blunt and straight forward is my best shot.'
Aiko used shunshin to position herself at his side, already ready with a beaming smile and a raised hand when he turned slightly to look at her. "What's up, cutie-san? I haven't seen you in a while. How have you been?"

He really was adorable when he gave her that mildly concussed stare, she noted. It was almost hard to believe that no one had ever flirted with him before. He kinda looked like a punk rocker, with the spiky hair and dark circles around his eyes. Granted, the fact that they weren't paint was a little off-putting when she really thought about it…

"You…" His eyes narrowed. "I remember you from the fight after the tournament. You are one of Naruto-san's teammates."

She huffed a surprised little laugh. "Uh, no," Aiko admitted, watching him carefully out of the edge of her vision while she channeled Naruto's sheepish head-scratch. "He's my otouto. I'm not really on his team, though." Apparently he didn't remember her from the tower… or that Naruto's team had lost their third member. Temari had known that and hinted at it to Ino—she'd raged about it later when she put it together—so Gaara must just not have paid any attention at all.

Somehow that didn't surprise her. When she'd last seen him, he didn't seem like a guy who spent a lot of time being interested in others' lives. It just wouldn't be compatible with a mindset that viewed killing everyone else as a good idea.

"So… you are one of his precious people?" Gaara examined her with unnerving intensity. If she hadn't intentionally manipulated what she knew of him to make him more amenable to her presence, Aiko might have been uncomfortable.

Instead, she pretended not to sense the awkward atmosphere at all. "Of course, and he's one of mine. Are you looking for something or someone?"

"No."

'Okay…' Aiko chewed on her bottom lip. It was awkward being the socially adept one in a conversation for once. He wasn't giving her much to go on, that was for sure. 'Well, fuck it. When in doubt, feed the boy.' It worked on such variant subjects as Naruto and Sasuke. Why the hell not on Gaara?

"Well then, let's go get smoothies. I just got back in town and I am parched." She telegraphed the motions obviously when she reached out to snag his hand and drag him along with her. The move was a risky but calculated one. Gaara might react violently to being touched, or he could view it as evidence that she wasn't treating him differently because of his demonic burden. Or he could just be confused by the presumption.

Luckily for her, the only sand she felt was the grainy barrier around his fingers like armor. The unnatural temperature made her grimace—touching what appeared to be a hand without body heat made her think of corpses.

"Your hands are cold," she complained good-naturedly, channeling her second favorite blonde now. Ino was a goddamn champion of herding around reluctant boys.

When he stiffened, she tightened her grip in apology. 'Right. The boy is sensitive', she noted. Then she mentally amended, dropping his hand to open the door to a café, 'More likely he isn't socially adept enough to know what to say. He's probably uncomfortable.' That wasn't the only possible hypothesis, but it was the one that best explained why he was susceptible to Naruto's particular brand of philosophy. Doubtless Naruto had never even noticed the bodily and verbal cues that indicated Gaara's mood and had barreled right over them. Gaara might like feeling normal—a feeling that could only be inspired by meeting another jinchuuriki who socialized much more healthily and gave him the realization that he could have friends and family like anyone else. She could take advantage of that desire by treating him as if he was anyone else, she concluded.

Lucky that had been her plan in the first place.

Granted, in treating him as if he were anyone else, she actually had to make exceptions. If she had met a random stranger who stared the way he did, was clearly uncomfortable, and spoke in near monosyllables if at all, she would have decided that the conversation wasn't worth the effort and disengaged. It was a bit like calmly holding a conversation with Gai—you pretended that the shouting was completely normal and parsed through the flowery language to get at the meaning and responded to only that. With Gaara, you pretended his reticence wasn't a faux-pas and drew meaning from what little he said and the volumes he didn't say.

It was an art form, she decided while pointedly not coaxing him to eat the peach and mango smoothie she set in front of him. She wouldn't acknowledge that he didn't know what to do with it or that he seemed to think it might be poisoned. When she picked up her spoon and began to eat in between absently maintaining a conversation about her ducklings, she noticed with some triumph that he focused a laser-like gaze on her hand for a few minutes before he picked up his own spoon and flawlessly imitated her.

She would have been confused if not for the fact that she had never seen a single spoon in Suna, only chopsticks. It just wasn't a cultural norm. Soup was eaten from a tilted bowl, and cold treats like ice cream just weren't likely to happen there.

After a while, when it became clear that he at least wasn't ignoring her talk about her team—both her duckling and team seven—she tried to get him to contribute to the conversation. Of course, that was tricky. He didn't have friends to tell stories about, and doubtlessly he was getting to know his siblings for the first time in his life. So she didn't dig too deeply.

"Is your team here too?"

That appeared to be a question he couldn't answer with either a nod or a blank stare, so she counted it as a success.
Granted, "Kankuro did not come," wasn't going to be winning any prizes for eloquence, but it was enough that she considered it contribution to dialogue.

"Did you want to see any of the sights while you're in town?" she asked lightly. "There's a big merchant caravan that moved in about a week ago. They're only going to be here for another week. It's actually pretty cool. And one of the Academy classes is putting on a traditional dance performance as part of their infiltration final."

That had made her laugh until she was sick again. If her teacher had tried to do that, she would have caused him serious bodily harm. The dance and other similar classes were often taught by civilian experts so that they could be sure what they were teaching was both current and accurate. It wouldn't do to pass down ninja interpretations of civilian dance and ignore that things changed. They were often likely to consider public performance a necessary part of proving students had mastered the material- a faux geisha who was crowd shy would fool no one. Regardless of how intelligent the idea actually was, the students would probably hate it. She was pretty sure that the grumpy faces would be the best part of the performance.

Gaara looked at her as if she'd suggested they go streaking after they finished their treats.

"Or the water is really nice at the mixed onsen," she changed tracks, lips twitching with amusement. "I like to get a good book and soak for hours. I bet you don't spend much time relaxing in water in Suna."

"I do not," he reluctantly agreed. And that was all he said. The door to the café banged open, bells chiming irritably and roughly a half second later Aiko was blinking up at Inuzuka Kiba. It would have been a more pleasant surprise if he (and Akamaru perched on his head) hadn't been growling at Gaara, lips curled aggressively.

Aiko groaned, covering her face with her hands. And things had been going so well, too. Kiba was going to put Gaara back on edge after she'd finally coaxed him into relaxing slightly.

"What are you doing here?" Kiba placed both hands on the table and leaned forward into Gaara's personal space.

The redhead didn't take it well, trickles of sand beginning to agitate. His face remained blank, but he crossed his arms. It was somehow intimidating, even though he had to put down his ice cream first to make the motion.

"Whoa, boys," Aiko interrupted, placing a palm up. "Calm down. Kiba, it's nice to see you. It'd be nicer if you sat down instead of glared at us from up there." She scooted over and patted the bench next to her. Kiba's attention drifted to her, and a strange look crossed his face for a moment. Then it passed.

"I don't want to sit with him!" Kiba practically yelled, pointing at Gaara.

The other boy stood. Aiko noted absently that his full height was at least four inches below Kiba's. Of course, they were finally at the age where boys hit their growth spurts, so maybe Gaara just hadn't had his yet. Chakra swelled, and then Gaara was gone. Aiko blinked at the space where he'd been for a moment, not quite registering what had happened. Then she felt that damn twitch in her right eye and forcibly relaxed her face. Aiko wasn't entirely sure when she had developed a nervous twitch, but she was trying to catch it when it happened.

'It's fine.' She took a deep breath, pushing her ice cream away. 'Kiba didn't know any better. If I saw a peer sitting closely to someone who had tried to kill them the last time they'd met, I might demonstrate alarm as well.' Really, his concern for a peer who was a near-stranger should be used as evidence for the claim that Kiba was a good guy.

So instead of expressing her irritation with him—he'd ruined her information gathering session—she merely said, "Hello again, Kiba."

And then the weirdo blushed.

________________________________________

It turned out that Konoha wanted powerful allies slightly more than they wanted revenge. Temari had to swallow her pride, because at the moment Suna couldn't be a powerful ally to anyone, and agree to accept several personnel on a short-term basis to fill out their ranks and help them take all their mission requests. Nothing urgent or information sensitive, of course, but several administrators to help the hospital run more smoothly and free up medic nin for missions would be provided as well as a few lower class missions that would be sub-contracted out to Konoha.

That was a bitter remedy to have to accept—they desperately needed the money those missions could provide, but they couldn't fulfill them on their own. Konoha would be pocketing the money from those missions, of course, but this way they wouldn't end up failing to meet the terms of their arrangement with the Wind Daimyo by failing to accept all the missions from his people.

Because the Hokage was a medic, part of her terms had been sample specimen of a few plants and poisonous desert animals that Temari was vaguely aware Kankuro used in his poison compounds.

The elders would be infuriated—the move would cement their alliance by making it much more difficult for Sand to ever turn on Konoha. Their monopoly on many rare and deadly ingredients had been one of the things keeping them from being crushed under the heel of bigger villages. Without samples, it was almost impossible for remedies to be made for Suna poison.

But Temari had seen no other option. If she had rejected the offer, Konoha could have come in and crushed them and taken the damn plants anyways. It would be a pyrrhic victory—Sand was too inhospitable and entrenched for them to lose without taking out massive casualties, the only reason Konoha hadn't marched on them the day after that failed invasion. There was almost no chance that Konoha would lose, but they would be severely weakened afterwards and easy prey for other villages.

That knowledge was the only reason Temari knew she could negotiate from a position of strength as well, although her counterparts had clearly been hoping she was unaware of that nuance. It was possible for her to push Konoha into being obligated to start a war with Suna, but that was an unpleasant prospect for both sides. So she used that little leverage on issues that she found were important—like having Konoha maintain higher levels of border security so that Sand didn't have to. It was both a show of trust and so that Sand could free up experienced nin.

When she'd made that suggestion, the lady Tsunade's lips had twitched in amusement for the first time, and Temari thought she recognized a fellow predator. The Hokage had been raised to be politically astute due to her relation to a Kage as well. Very few ninja were—it was something that their civilian counterparts had mastered, but when villages were often led by those with the most physical power, well… often they were more likely to use their muscles than their brains.

Whatever the reason, Tsunade had accepted the proposal and several others. Temari knew damn well that the elders would be apoplectic with rage, but she wasn't going to support any one of them for Kazekage. They would find that out soon enough.

She had a different candidate in mind. Gaara had latched onto Uzumaki Naruto's goals with a one-minded focus, and was already a completely different person than he had been half a year ago. Having a direction was doing him good. Besides, he was really the only person in their village with the power to really lay claim to the title.

He wasn't ready yet, of course. But once she could be sure that he really had changed- she did owe that much to the citizens of Suna- and that his image was changing as well, she would speak to him about it.

Temari pushed the door open and flopped down on the couch of the luxurious, air conditioned suite she had been assigned as a diplomat, idly calling out for her brother. She didn't really expect him to be there or to walk into the room.

It was even less expected that he would be the first to speak. Granted, it was Gaara, so it wasn't an impressive start.
"You look well."

Temari blinked up at the ceiling, then tilted her head to make sure everything was in place. "Um, thank you," she said a bit dumbly. Then she cleared her throat. "The meeting went well," she informed, knowing that if she wanted to make him Kazekage he had to have some interest in goings-on like this. "Looks like we're allies for sure now. Did you do anything interesting?"

The last question was more for form's sake than anything else. It was Gaara- he never did anything interesting. He probably stared at the sun for a few hours, or people-watched, or just thought about the complexities of life. In fact, he probably-

"I had ice cream with a girl."

Temari sat up so fast she gave herself whiplash. That required some contextualization.

"Whuh… what happened?" she said weakly. Gaara with a girl? It almost had to be a misunderstanding. That didn't make sense.

"A boy showed up and was clearly agitated with my presence, so I left" Gaara monotoned. Temari was so baffled that she wanted to cry. That… that certainly sounded like he'd somehow gotten involved in a love triangle, or at least stepped on someone's toes by flirting with their girl. But that was the least Gaara-like thing she'd ever heard of. How on earth did he end up spending time socially with a girl? She'd never even been on a date—did that mean her youngest brother had been the first in their family to get a date? 'At least choosing to leave is a definite improvement over how he would have dealt with that a while ago,' some part of her brain noted. That was downright mature, actually.

Suddenly, the triumphs she'd made in the last day were less important than the fact that there was somebody out there Gaara had an interest in. Temari swallowed, hard. What monstrous kind of girl would Gaara find interesting?

________________________________________

"What," Jiraiya said flatly, unintentionally releasing a bit of killing intent. The dark haired man he'd been talking to stiffened reflexively, fingers twitching as if he wanted to reach for a weapon. He was intelligent enough not to, however.

It had apparently been a bad intelligence report to bring Naruto on, some distant part of his mind noted. Part of the stipulation for training Naruto had been giving him the chance to learn the trade and gain some of his own contacts. Jiraiya couldn't do it alone forever, after all. He'd thought that Naruto was ready to at least start sitting in on these meetings.

'Luckily, he's too clueless to realize who we're talking about,' the sannin noted with black humor.

The man who had claimed to be Akira (almost certainly a code name, even Naruto knew) carefully restated his last sentence. The one where he'd mentioned Rock had quietly put out a sizable bounty on a Konoha kunoichi using chakra chains, despite the fact that the countries weren't at war and she hadn't apparently done anything particularly offensive yet. It wasn't exactly politically appropriate, but the Rock had hated Aiko's parents enough that little things like that didn't stop them from wanting her dead before she hit her prime.

Aiko hadn't been named, of course. Akira probably hadn't thought the name important enough to mention when he had a copy of the bounty to hand over with all the pertinent information. Jiraiya snatched it up impatiently and examined the information, not sure if he was pleased or depressed to see that Uzumaki Aiko had been tentatively assessed as a B-rank shinobi with at least one A-rank skill. He'd never seen her in action, but she had two years more of field experience than his Uzumaki. It shouldn't be too surprising that she was stronger than her brother. If this was true, she was strong but not nearly strong enough to protect herself from the type of monsters who would be willing to take on a bounty like that.

He took a moment to hope like hell that Kakashi was keeping an eye on the kid. Hatake and Tsunade were the only two people other than himself that he'd trust to keep her out of that kind of trouble, and Tsunade was a bit busy adjusting to her new hat.
'Maybe this is what Itachi knew about?' Jiraiya hypothesized. But that didn't quite make sense either. Why would Itachi view Uzumaki chakra as a threat or worthy of notice? And it seemed impossible that Itachi could have known about Aiko's apparent ability before Jiraiya did (although he wouldn't have been surprised in the slightest if he'd beat Rock to the clue party, even with the stigma of being a genocidal missing nin. Rock couldn't find their asses with both hands, generally speaking).

Surely he would have been told if the girl had managed to master chakra chains before he had taken Naruto. Wouldn't Naruto know?

He cast a glance to his student and suppressed a groan. For once, the brat was paying attention, knuckles clenched tightly and lips pressed into a hard expression. 'So maybe he does know what chakra chains are,' Jiraiya concluded heavily. Naruto might not know it, but any veteran of the last war would know to associate chakra chains with both the Uzumaki clan in general and Kushina in particular.

Chapter Text

The toad fidgeted a little, directing big pleading eyes up at the dark-haired child in the room. Children often carried candy, right? And they were susceptible to emotional manipulation and cute things. And Gamatsu was adorable.

Sasuke glowered, wishing that old hag would just hurry up and finish reading. He swore that thing was staring at him. Whatever was going on must be important. When he had reluctantly brought the foul thing to the tower, she had been in a meeting of some sort with an ANBU operative and the Nara clan head (a group that was assembled surprisingly often). He'd caught the end of a sentence when he'd come to the door. Oddly enough, it seemed to be about how clan heads were unsuitable for something or another.

Possibly the Nara clan head was as lazy as his son and avoiding another responsibility, Sasuke thought. Or perhaps he'd misheard.

In any case, when she'd seen the toad, the Hokage had groaned and ushered both men out of her office with instructions to keep on doing what they had been doing.

He wasn't entirely out of the information loop—he knew that toads were the summon clan tied to Naruto's teacher. They appeared in the Hokage's office (or in the case with this one, accidentally got lost somewhere in Konoha and had to be escorted there) from time to time with messages of some sort. But usually, Tsunade didn't spend so long in her 'thinking' pose afterward. He liked to sass his shishou occasionally, but he knew better than to make a sound when she had her eyes closed, and forehead pinned between her thumb and forefinger.

Shizune nudged his shoulder companionably, winking and spelling out 'katana tonight' with her free hand. He tried not to smirk—weapons training with Shizune was probably the best part of his week, and he would rather do it more than twice every seven days or so when she wasn't too busy. It seemed strange when he consciously realized that sweet, gentle Shizune had qualified for ANBU work and had of course mastered their trademark blade, but that didn't make it any less true. Or useful. Itachi had mastered the blade as well, after all.

'Yes,' he signed back, keeping his hand obscured from Tsunade's perspective. Just in case she looked up. The Hokage was a grumpy old hag sometimes.

"Shizune, I need a drink."

Other times, she was a grumpy old drunk.

His senpai scowled gently, putting hands to hips and tilting them confrontationally. "Shishou! You're still working for at least another hour. Can't you wait?"

Tsunade gave him a pleading expression. "You there. My cute apprentice." (Shizune gasped, faux-hurt). "Be a good student and get your poor, suffering mentor something hard to drink." She nearly welled up with tears. "I have to break bad news to your former sensei, that unkempt lunatic."

Instantly Sasuke understood her position. Kakashi could be a bit difficult. Assuming the ten minute to four hour wait didn't already have you murderous, his unique brand of charm could inspire that feeling almost instantly if he felt like you needed to be punished passive aggressively. "I'll find something," he promised, turning away and leaving the office at a jog. If he hurried, he could come and go before Kakashi came around. He hated getting caught between his two mentors. Tsunade was his mentor now, but Kakashi had been a decent teacher to him and there was still the possibility Sasuke might need him in future.
Shizune took the paper Tsunade had discarded and began reading. She did her best not to giggle, she really did. "That's lovely, but I'm not sure why it's relevant to Hatake-san," she gasped.

"Not that part!" Tsunade snapped, flushing red. "The last part. I'm guessing this letter was written over a few days and the last part is very recent."

A few minutes later, Shizune's expression shifted, levity gone. "Oh dear." She sucked in a long breath and unintentionally held it, expelling deeply when she'd finished. "Well… Good luck, shishou." She began to back away. "I'm late for a shift at the hospital."

No way was she going to be caught up in one of their bizarre power plays. For a guy who didn't want to be Hokage, Hatake-san sure challenged Tsunade-sama's authority an awful lot. Granted, to Shizune's knowledge he only openly defied Tsunade the once over her hare-brained idea to make a thirteen year old a Jounin before she'd led a single mission as a Chuunin. (Shizune hadn't been fond of the idea either, no matter how 'safe' the posting Tsunade wanted her to fill would supposedly be or how badly the numbers needed to be filled.)

There was no way that he didn't know just how much it pissed her off to have to wait hours to give mission briefings. Hatake-san provoked her mentor on purpose.

But she couldn't really do much to him. How does one discipline a man who has practically no ambitions? Anything that would interfere with his combat efficiency was out—he was currently uncontested as the most powerful shinobi in her active forces, so demoting him or locking him up would be harming her own efforts to make Konoha seem powerful after the recent power imbalances. That was the same reason she didn't send him out on extended missions—it was a delicate balance between taking advantage of his skills and making sure that the other countries knew that the Copy Nin could be in Fire Country at any given point in time. It grated, but she knew that his reputation was one of the things keeping the wolves at bay.

In a practical sense, any four of her Jounin were probably more useful in a large fight than the Copy Nin. He wasn't an army by himself, and could be overcome. But a large part of what maintained the tenuous balance between the great powers was the fear of big names and their potential. Reputation was everything, and people tended to think of powerful shinobi opponents in terms of "Do we have anyone who could beat them", instead of the more logical, "What would we have to do in order to kill this troublesome person, whether that means sacrificing a few high-level shinobi or outsmarting them". The ninja world was sometimes a silly place like that.

If the real aim of jutsu development, for example, was the ability to aid warfare in traditional ninja fashion, the field would probably have been discarded. An assassination could be done silently, quickly, and from almost any distance without the tell-tale flare of chakra to alert any guards with simple weaponry.

No… the jutsu arms race was a dick-measuring contest. Shizune pulled up her schedule for the day, relieved to see that she had a surgery coming up soon. Having something to concentrate on would help her relax.

Shizune had never tried to join in on the rush for reputation like her shishou and her teammates had. She used the same summons as her mentor, but her name wasn't internationally feared. Konoha needed heroes like Tsunade, Kakashi, and the Red Chained Death… but not all of Konoha's heroes could be big names. Being a big name made a shinobi into a big target.

Unfortunately, it looked like that was happening too early to Aiko-chan. It wasn't exactly shocking. Tsunade had known what she was doing when she asked Hatake-san to see if the girl could use the legendary chakra chains. But it was a little depressing to know that she didn't have the opportunity to become a truly exceptional ninja before she had a reputation. It would be one thing if she'd gained that reputation by doing something truly monstrous like the Sannin's legendary battle against Hanzo the Salamander—a reputation that was already tested didn't draw nearly as many fortune hunters as a reputation for a rare and powerful bloodline ability. Her youth would work against her (no matter what Gai thought on that matter). Children did seem like easier targets.

In the administration building, Tsunade was bracing herself for another temper tantrum, knowing full well that the stupidly blank expression could be hiding any number of ridiculous thoughts that somehow cycled around to place blame on her shoulders. She hadn't quite forgotten the last argument yet. Her nerves were taut, and she was ready with any number of cutting rejoinders about where exactly the blame for this situation should rest.

"Ah. Is that all?"

She stared, dumbfounded. "You're not bothered in the least."

Hatake shrugged, looking perfectly at ease. "I didn't teach her an A class ability with the blindly optimistic idea that she would never use it," he said mildly. "I believe that use in combat is in fact the purpose of learning jutsu. It's where I tend to use my deadly jutsu. It was unfortunate that she used it in front of Rock nin, but no one has ever told her why that was a bad idea." He gave her a rather pointed look. "Seeing as how those much older and wiser than me have concluded it's too dangerous for the twins to know the truth, I thought that you had already taken those incredibly obvious concerns into consideration."

"Right," she said weakly. Tsunade a made a fist and thumped lightly at her chest, coughing slightly to clear her voice. "Well. Yes, that's all. Take the letter with you, Naruto wrote notes for you and Aiko. I took Sasuke's out already." She frowned. "At least, I assumed he's the 'bastard' in question that it's addressed to."

"Good call." He eye-smiled and stuffed the papers into his book before giving her a sloppy salute and shunshin-ing away. She didn't see the way that his jaw clenched or that carefully deliberate way he slouched against a tree to read the missive for himself.

When she was alone, Tsunade took the opportunity to gently bang her head against the deck. Just once- she didn't indulge in this often, but it felt appropriate right now. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that children didn't know to act on knowledge they had been forbidden from having.

'Maybe it's time to rescind that order. Aiko should know why she's being hunted, and Naruto is with the one person who knew Minato best of all.' Tsunade sighed, feeling old and tired. 'I'm sure the pervert would love to talk about the good old days.' She was awfully advanced in youth (thank you, Gai) to be adjusting to the role of a Hokage. Really, she wasn't that much younger than the Sandaime had been the first time he retired. Thinking about setting up the future generations for success was an overwhelming task. The brats that Jiraiya's brat had spawned were all grown up for Kami's sake. She'd found herself a couple of successors (and that Uchiha brat had been a better find than she'd anticipated, with equal measures of grit and talent) and Jiraiya had found another one.

She was a little uneasy about that—it would kill the man to lose another student. And besides, if anything happened to this one and Jiraiya never got to train another student, whoever picked up the contract would be starting over from scratch. But she couldn't do much about that- Jiraiya didn't really take her orders and she didn't want to cause him the pain of letting yet another vulnerable student into his heart. Naruto just had to be the student Jiraiya could rest his hopes on.

Her line of thoughts turned to her other teammate (and no matter how many years had passed, on some level she still thought of him as her teammate). He had just the one surviving student in the village… How old was Anko, anyway? Hell, she had to be in her early twenties. That was old enough to take on a student, wasn't it?

Tsunade sighed, pushing herself up from her desk. It had been a long day, and she had another meeting with that pointy-headed brat from Sand tomorrow- the third day in a row. She'd hoped to have that over quickly, but now there was more information to share. Jiraiya thought it was important that everyone know that the jinchuuriki were being hunted and that he was growing more concerned about Akatsuki. If they were going to be allies, sand should know.

"Be a damn shame if we lost that black-eyed snot nose," she grumbled to herself somewhat sarcastically.

It was almost an insult that the jinchuuriki Sand had attempted to weaponize against them had been sent with the diplomat. Judging by reports of his involvement in the failed invasion, the boy had been brutal. He was dangerous. She wouldn't have tolerated him in the village if not for one person's babbling on the subject- the relentlessly optimistic brat who had returned her to the village. If Naruto had accurately assessed her own personality at a glance and convinced her to return, he might have actually seen something others had missed in the One-Tails' jinchuuriki.

Naruto had done his level best to convince her that the brat was really a good person and should be trusted. Tsunade wasn't entirely convinced, but he hadn't done anything remotely suspicious in the time he'd been in the village.

'In fact', she thought rather sourly, 'He may be the evidence I use for an argument about a bizarre, previously unnoted Uzumaki tendency to assume the best of homicidal maniacs. Worst of all, the lunatics may be right.'

She hadn't been best pleased to hear from ANBU Cat that Uzumaki Aiko had approached the dangerous foreigner of her own volition and then proceeded to physically drag him to a damn ice cream shop while he looked confused. Tsunade didn't know the chit well— all she knew was that the girl seemed competent enough on paper, apparently tugged at long-dormant parental instincts in that damn Hatake brat, and was the object of a hilariously obvious fixation by her own apprentice. (When he referred to just about everyone with mild disrespect except 'Aiko-senpai', she had noticed and laughed over it with Shizune).

Maybe her personal observations of the girl as quiet, reasonably intelligent, and serious had been off. Personally, Tsunade found the idea of pursuing a friendship with a foreigner who had tried to kill you in past to be particularly unintelligent. But she wouldn't deny that Naruto and Aiko's general blockheadedness and lack of social awareness would be a boon if Konoha did tie itself to Suna.

'Really,' she lamented as she got ready to leave for the day, 'It's a damn shame that those two idiots got assigned to Hatake as a sensei. Someone more socially competent might have helped them.' She couldn't help but snort at her next thought and half-wished someone else was around to share it with. 'In the kingdom of the socially blind, the one-eyed man is king.'

Before she left, Tsunade jotted down a note to herself—she'd have Anko brought in for a meeting in the early morning and tell her that she had to find a child to take as a student. Then she stalked out the door, giving a warning glance to the secretary who opened her mouth as if to say something.

She was the Hokage here, damnit. She didn't have to answer to anyone.

A few moments later, she backtracked and asked Keiko to have Anko summoned to her office at her earliest open appointment. Upon further reflection, it made sense to make use of her secretary to set appointments.

________________________________________

"That's the girl?" Temari hissed while their escort stared blankly, trying not to elbow her otouto in her excitement. Gaara looked as placid as ever, only nodding in response. The girl in question was wandering down the street with a produce bag, gazing up at a man with spiky white hair. She appeared to be talking up a storm, and her body language was directed solely to her companion. In contrast, he was slouched and appeared to be barely awake.

She sighed. 'It's that same weirdo I keep running into,' she groused. On one hand, it made some sense. This chick was everywhere she looked. It was like Konoha only had the one Chuunin. The girl had displayed interest in Gaara at the tower, and displayed a distinct lack of survival instincts every time Temari had seen her.

The first time three or so years ago in Suna, she had been infuriated by the smarmy Konoha kunoichi wandering around their streets after curfew as if nothing was wrong. That had been back when Gaara was at his worst and the village was constantly on lock-down. She and Kankuro had both been tense, constantly in fear for their lives.

Less than half a year ago at that Chuunin exam, it had become clear that the other girl was above her level and actually working with the half-naked lunatic running the second exam. She had accordingly found a safer target to poke at- a testy blonde with annoyingly perfect hair.

Temari hadn't seen the redhead again until she showed up leading a group of genin to stop Gaara. She was a bit unclear on exactly what had happened, but the results made it clear that a few genin and one Chuunin had somehow stopped him. Gaara wasn't talking about it and Konoha surely wasn't sharing their intelligence on the matter. It was enough to almost make her regret hanging back from the fight.

So she was wary.

On one hand, this might not be as big of a deal as she had thought. Gaara hadn't seemed to realize that she'd assumed he had taken the other girl on a date.

It was almost a little disappointing. She'd had a thrill of sisterly pride at the idea of her little brother going on his first date (never mind that she hadn't been on one). It might have been a massive boon for her plan to get him the Kazekage robes as well. The biggest stumbling block she would have to navigate was the fact that everyone was terrified of Gaara and thought he was completely alien- inhuman and unrelatable. If he had practice socializing in Konoha, it might expedite things back home.
On the other hand, it could be dangerous for him to grow close to a foreign kunoichi just when he was learning how to be human. If this girl were the mercenary sort, she could be intending to subvert Gaara to Konoha, or just gain information.
Either way, she was probably screwed. He had eventually clarified that the girl he had met was Uzumaki Naruto's sister. 'And doesn't that explain so much,' she thought sarcastically. They were a weird bunch. She half-hoped there weren't more. Suna might not survive the alliance.

If Gaara wanted to talk to her because the girl was a connection to Naruto, there was almost no chance she'd be able to convince him not to talk to her anymore. Not that Gaara had ever really listened to her in the first place. At best, he would do what he wanted regardless of her warnings. At worst, he would become irritated with her for attempting to get between him and Naruto. He only had the one friend at the moment, and Gaara was pretty attached already. Seeing how much he had changed in the short months since the Uzumaki boy had talked sense into him, Temari didn't even want to detach her brother from the foreign nin.

However unwise it was, it seemed that Gaara had acquired a second friend for himself.

Since she was such an excellent sister, she had to at least try to scope out the girl. It was her duty as an older sibling.
________________________________________

"Are you aware that the two Suna ambassadors are following you?" Kakashi asked his apprentice mildly before he left. The girl flushed a little.

"Um, yes," she admitted. "I think that might be my fault. I saw Gaara-san wandering around yesterday."

She frowned slightly, letting the prepared not-quite-a-lie slip out. "I wanted to see what it was that Naruto had spotted in him."
Kakashi gave a long-suffering sigh and intentionally mussed up her hair. "You shouldn't be so hard to keep alive. Now that you've finally managed the chakra chains, I want you to master them as soon as possible. Preferably in a way that involves no Konoha casualties."

She flushed at the reference to her failure so far to use any less than terrifyingly lethal force with her chains. Until she knew her strength and how to use them to restrain instead of kill, she couldn't be said to have succeeded at her technique. It would be stupid to try to improve the chains before she had mastered them.

"I have someone in mind as a training partner for you. In the meantime, I want you to work on your kenjutsu. Hopefully, you'll have easy opportunities soon."

She nodded obediently, not questioning the rather strange statement or showing surprise when he poofed out of sight. He knew what he was talking about. He always did. But shishou almost never answered questions. Aiko gently touched the handle of the short ANBU style blade she had been practicing with lately as if to make sure it was still there. She had bought it herself with the shop owner's guidance under the vague guiding instructions Kakashi had given her. The weight of it still felt strange to her, even now that she was finally getting used to the heavy Chuunin vest.

The letter he had passed on to her was tucked into her pocket. Oddly enough, her shishou had found her while she was out at the market for fresh fruit and vegetables to hand it over and caution her about what having a bounty on her head meant.
Frankly, she was surprised. It hadn't seemed like that big of a deal to her—lots of people she knew had bloodlines or other special abilities. She'd only killed one man with it, in that altercation and since. Aiko had seen Anko use senbon to far more deadly effect in past, for the kami's sake.

It was something she could learn to live with. The advice she had been given boiled down to 'don't leave survivors to talk about her abilities.' (Unless she'd done something spectacularly impressive that she wanted to become public knowledge, of course, was the caveat).

As a kunoichi, her life was meant to be dangerous. She would always be running into people who wanted her dead. Anyone she had reason to be worried about losing a fight to either wouldn't be interested in her comparatively small bounty or would be intelligent enough to want to know more about her combat abilities before engaging her. The bounty had a sparse information section with a bare physical description, her name, one special skill and a guess at her overall level gauged from one short encounter. Anyone stupid enough to try to collect on that contract without more information would probably be someone she could defeat out of hand.

She was totally going to find a copy of her bounty and keep it. It was pretty fucking cool, when she really thought about it. God, Karin was going to freak out.
________________________________________

'Of course shishou was right about my chance to practice swordplay,' Aiko thought the next day with a smile. When she had reported personally to the Hokage's office for her orders (and seen a pouty Anko stomping out) she had found out that her primary mission this time was actually the elimination of a small group of troublemakers that had been reported by a group of merchants when they'd arrived in town.

Apparently three or four people had turned to banditry lately. Granted, there was always someone unintelligent enough to risk crime even when the consequences were likely to be immediate and severe. When civilians were willing to risk banditry so close to a ninja village, it generally meant one of two things. Either the village was regarded as being too weak for them to waste the manpower on a minor problem, or that their targets were minor enough that no one would care about a few fleeced merchants. After all, if they had been intelligent enough to hire shinobi protectors, the bandits wouldn't have bothered. In a way, bandits like those helped keep ninja economies together.

Unfortunately for this particular group of troublemakers, Konoha was not as weak as they were supposed and the people they had robbed had possessed friends with enough money for a C-class mission.

It was barely deserving of that title, being within a few hours travel of the village and with so few low level targets, but every mission with potential for combat had to be rated above D-class. The run to the closest outpost had actually been postponed, but since she had already been on a conveniently low-level team her partners would be her three genin. She had been instructed to guide them through their first combat experience and brush with death but to avoid having them deal it out directly if at all possible—it was too traumatizing. When that happened, it sometimes set young ninja back on their ability to adjust to shinobi life.

Aiko was far too practical to let that happen. Aside from her personal fondness for her first team, she didn't believe in squandering resources.

The genin weren't told of the change in mission directives until they were out of town that afternoon, heading in a slightly different direction. This was apparently standard procedure- Konoha didn't want to send shinobi out on obvious, easily intercepted patterns or give anyone an opportunity to set a trap for an inexperienced team. It would be for the best if no one knew what exactly was going on at any given point in time.

The more she learned about how Tsunade ran the village, the more Aiko was impressed. If being Hokage hadn't been Naruto's dream she might have wanted to see how well she could do at the job herself. It seemed like such a shame she'd never have an opportunity to be the de facto queen of a small country (hey, being 'Queen' sounded much better than 'Kage').

'Maybe in the next life,' she snickered.

Perhaps she was sending the bandits that she easily tracked down by footprints from the scene of the reported robbery to a better life as well. A girl could never know. The universe was full of wonder. She glanced backwards to assess her team before she made a move when they finally found their targets bedded down for the night. 'A bit green-faced, but fine.'

If she had been the slightest bit worried about these men's abilities, she would have killed them all in their sleep. Her reasons for allowing the man on watch to make a dying gargle that brought the other three out of their sleeping rolls were two-fold.
Firstly, it might be less traumatizing for the kids to be able to think of the people she was about to kill as opponents and villains instead of sleeping victims. In her experience, it was less disturbing to kill in the heat of a fight than by gently letting blood in someone's sleep. It was perhaps silly- it might be kinder to let them feel no fear. But she cared more about the genin than the bandits, to be honest.

The second reason was more practical than kind-hearted. She had been told to practice her sword work, after all. Killing them in their sleep would only have been useful for practicing her Ring-Wraith impersonation, and it wouldn't even be funny since no one else would get the joke. Shame, that.

When the deed was done and Aiko had the knowledge that could only come from experience of just how much force was required to separate a head from the body with a single blade, more than one shaking child vomited. Gently, Aiko pulled down the mask that protected her mouth from bloodspray to rest around her neck and rubbed each of their backs in turn. She murmured soothing nonsense before patting Ken fondly and instructing the three to wait a moment while she finished up. Aiko burnt the corpses effortlessly—she felt more at home on jobs like this than any other. They went back to the hunter and tracker roots of her training under Kakashi.

Chakra sense lit up like radar, she swung her legs in the air from her perch on a rock over the stream where her ducklings were cleaning up and refilling water pouches. She was no Karin, of course, but her range was wide enough that she could feel the flickering of both the outpost and ninja back home.

No one protested when she didn't allow them to bed down for the night, instead heading back to Konoha immediately. There was no point in lingering in the forest when they could make it back to the village before first light.

Aiko was practical, after all.

________________________________________
Omake

I had more than one idea about how to write the scene when Kakashi finds out that his student already has a bounty. The first one I wrote… well, it ended up a bit silly.

How it could have happened:

"Congratulations Hatake," Anko snickered, holding out a sheaf of paper when she finally found the man hiding from Gai in a bar populated with only really hardened alcoholics either nursing yesterday's hangover or working on today's. That was mostly her fault—the fastest way to flush Hatake out was to ask Gai to find him. The pouty bastard would be found in the quietest, filthiest corner possible. Like a rat. "You're a better teacher than I gave you credit for."

Confused, Kakashi reached out to take the paper. The only sound was the crinkle as he unfolded what appeared to be paper torn out of a book. He stared. Took a breath.

"For fuck's sake!"

Anko immediately began to cackle, stopping suddenly when she realized he was gone.

The woman pouted, irritated that he had taken her copy of Aiko's bounty. She'd thought it was funny—come on, getting a price put on your head was the first sign you'd become truly notorious. Sure, the number was too high for a Chuunin, but it wasn't even a third of the asking price on Hatake's head. It wasn't like he didn't already watch the kid. She'd be fine.

Asuma eyed Anko warily, trying to decide if it was worth asking. He'd just decided it wasn't when she made eye contact.

'Oh hell', he sighed. Before she could reach him, Asuma grabbed his beer and emptied the whole damn thing. It was important to maintain a light buzz around Anko. Plus, she had a bad habit of drinking out of other people's glasses instead of ordering her own. She pouted, but whatever gossip she wanted to share must have been good because she perched on the edge of the bar and shouted at the barkeep for a drink.

"How'd you piss Hatake off in a minute long conversation?" He cut to the chase.

The woman brightened, reaching over to steal a choice morsel out of his salty bar food. "I didn't say anything," she deflected with a patently false pout. "I just found something I thought he'd like to see."

Asuma rolled his eyes, pulling a cigarette out of his vest pocket and lighting up. He wished Anko didn't always play these damn games. She wanted to gossip, but instead she talked around it to make him dig and dig for information.
But he was a nosy bastard. So he played along.

"That was nice of you, I'm sure," he drawled, offering her a smoke. She snatched it and shoved it in her mouth unlit, rolling it around like candy between her lips. "What did you want to show him?"

Anko gave a pout for real this time. "He took it," she grumbled, "or I would show you myself. I recently made the acquaintance of a very nice rock-nin. After I killed him, I found a brand shiny new bingo book, hot off the press." She shrugged. "So I had a look." She was busily unwinding his expensive cigarette, letting the tobacco fall to the tabletop.

"Right," Asuma said flatly. There was no point in scolding her. Regulation stated that every time a new bingo copy from a foreign nation was pulled in, it had to be submitted in full to Intelligence. Knowing who everyone else wanted dead was important. But Anko had no shame. She'd obviously torn a page out of it before she handed it in.

Obviously disappointed by his lackluster response, Anko irritably pushed his new beer off the table and onto the floor. It shattered, splashing his leg. While he began to curse and shake out his pant leg, she leaned in closer, taking a smug swig of her own drink, and then wrapped both hands around it in her lap. "Guess who got their bingo cherry popped," she crooned.
Asuma glanced up irritably. "That's it," he said flatly. "That's what you're bothering me about? Congratulations, moron."

"No, not me, you jackass!" She leapt to her feet and yelled in his face, cheeks scarlet. "I've been in there for years. Honestly," she groused, giving him a dirty look. "No, stupid. I was talking about his kid. You know, the Uzumaki girl."
Asuma just started laughing.

"Yeah, I know," Anko snickered. "He's going to freak out."

________________________________________
Aiko stared. Confused. Brain, it not working right now.

"Here is how you do Chidori! And this is how we kill someone using our pinkies! And for the next time you go on a date with boy who previously tried to kill you, here's how you kill someone with a silly straw." He demonstrated carefully on the mildly surprised looking bunshin he had made as a practice dummy in the split second before it ceased to exist. Then he fixed her a thoroughly unnerving stare, one eye spinning idly. "Also, don't fucking do that. Ever again."

Chapter Text

"That could be our new slogan," Emiko mused, totally serious. As she'd been silent for a while, her fellow genin and the Chuunin treating them to breakfast at her house gave her strange looks. Then she clarified. "I was just thinking about our mission. I think I know how we should advertise to clients." She held out her hands expansively. "Konoha nin! Providing permanent solutions to temporary problems since the first year of the ninja."

Aiko choked on her breakfast muffin, hacking and banging lightly on the table with her palm. By the time she could breathe again, the genin had dissolved into hysterical giggles. Ken held up a hand to catch the milk leaking out of his nose, glaring weakly at Emiko for her poor timing. Luckily for him, his hatred of the (incredibly flattering and practical) masked outfit had led him to getting a lower-cut shirt that didn't get any of the milk spray. The girls had also gotten new clothes, but they had kept what she'd gotten them for wear outside the village and still wore them occasionally.

"No. 'You get what you pay for'," Akira deadpanned with a pointed look at Ken. He looked offended.

'Not the worst way to deal with the problem of first mission death.' She joined them in giggles that were as dignified as she could manage. 'Humor is a great coping mechanism.'

A door banged open down the hall, and Karin stumbled out in her blue pajamas, rubbing at her eyes. Akira managed to stop laughing long enough to give her and up-and-down and raise one eyebrow. Probably at her seriously impressive bed-head.
It also could have been the other girl who followed behind her from the master bathroom yawning, short black hair wet and wrapped up in an oversized fluffy purple bathrobe and white bunny slippers.

"Good morning, Aiko-san," Hinata managed, finding herself a seat at the table and flopping over weakly. She wasn't a morning person. "I didn't expect to see you back so soon." Karin grunted unhappily, finding herself a teacup and putting water on to boil. Aiko wordlessly pointed at the highly caffeinated tea she already had ready. Hinata poured herself a cup lightning-fast, dragging it to her body as if to protect it from the interlopers.

"So, this is your team?" Karin drawled, eying them. She looked unimpressed. Ken gave her a stink-eye in return, mopping up milk with his napkin.

"Hai. Emiko, Akira, and Ken. This is Karin and Hinata." Aiko gestured as was appropriate, raising to let her cousin take her seat since she was finished. "Dishes?" Akira wordlessly stood to help her gather them, taking up the job of rinsing while Aiko washed them in the other side of the sink. She handed the clean dishes to Ken to dry and put away in the cupboard. Emiko stretched, before checking the time and yawning. "It's late enough that I think I can go home."

"Alright," Aiko noted. "Have a good nap." She slid back into her chair, ignoring Karin's incredulous expression at her dirty mission fatigues.

The older redhead made a face. "I just thought of something. Aiko, please tell me you'll let me pick out your kimono for the spring festival."

She furrowed her brow. "Is that really coming up already?" Hinata managed to drag herself far enough off the table to nod, thoroughly unbecoming bags under her eyes.

The other two genin filed out soon after Emiko. They had made it to the village at about four in the morning. Shinobi had been out and about, along with several artisans and bakery workers, but not that many of them. Their mission report wouldn't be given until much later in the day, after the genin had a chance to rest. But no one had wanted to try to sneak into their house past hyper alert, sleeping parents. That didn't end well even when the parents in question weren't armed. (and almost everyone is armed in a shinobi village).

Aiko didn't take the chance to sleep. She was used to going without for longer times, and she was relatively certain that she would be meeting the person her shishou wanted her to meet today. As soon as her genin were gone, she took a long, luxurious shower. It may have been foolish and wasteful to do so directly before she went to the training grounds, but she wasn't fond of sticky day-old clothing.

Said clothing—all dark grey this time—hit the tile in a stiff pile. Since she wasn't planning on leaving the village, she indulged herself with Karin's scented shampoos and body wash.

It really was an indulgence for a ninja… they were scented like vanilla and contained glitter. It was shameful. Her normal soaps were harsh and had scents like 'forest', 'earth', and 'ocean'.

She used the glittery stuff anyways, and felt inordinately content. If she'd had more time, she might have painted her nails and gotten a mani-pedi.

'Thank all the kami for Hinata,' she mused when she stepped out and discovered the pile of luxurious jewel toned towels clean and ready for use. Since Naruto had left, someone else had to pick up the chore of laundry, and she was terrible about it. Karin was willing to do most of the housekeeping, like scrubbing and dusting. Aiko did most of the cooking and stocked the kitchen. Hinata had naturally slipped into the other chores as if she had always been there to water herbs and scrub out bloodstains.

Barefoot and clean, she toed the dirty clothes into the hamper before pulling out her own bathrobe and tossing her towel over the rack. Much happier now that she felt fresh, Aiko found one of her most definitely 'off-duty' uniform combinations- a still demure grey set of leggings with a short-sleeved pink tunic. She tugged her hair into pigtails with pink elastics, her black boots on her feet, and grey fingerless gloves over her hands before giving her reflection a grin and a thumbs-up.

"No stupid Chuunin vest today," she decided. She wouldn't need it to work on her chakra chains anyway. She did strap on her practice sword over her back, but didn't take any other weaponry or sealing equipment with her before she flounced out the door (tucking her lunch money into her bra for safekeeping) and headed straight for her usual training grounds.

She was less than surprised to be the only person there. Although she would normally start working out on her own, Aiko stretched out on the grass and tucked her hands behind her head. Then she cloud-watched, barely awake and content.
Time passed out of consciousness. It could have been minutes, but it must have been hours before she felt the flicker of two chakra signatures arriving via shunshin. One of them was very familiar. One was not.

"Hey shishou." She waved lazily with her index and middle fingers, cracking one eye open to peer up at his companion.
'Hellooo, nurse!' some voice from a far-off place in her brain called.

The hunk next to her sensei… just, wow. Dark, soulful eyes, messy brown hair, and a chin that could have been carved from marble peered down at her from its perch on broad shoulders. She grinned stupidly. 'Shame about the unflattering face-framing metal piece.' He also looked like he had dressed out of Kakashi-shishou's closet, which appealed to her for some reason.

Aiko stood up hastily, brushing off her clothes. "Hello, I'm Uzumaki Aiko. Please take care of me." She bowed politely to complete the traditional introduction.

Her sensei snickered rudely.

"I know." The man who could only be Yamato eyed her critically. "Yamato. I will be helping you today." He wasn't particularly impressed. He'd heard a lot about this kid second-hand, and he'd expected more. This was the girl that his senpai had left ANBU for? Bit underwhelming. She had pigtails and glitter all over for Kami's sake. He clenched his jaw imperceptibly. 'Kakashi-senpai, I won't let you down! Even if this is all I have to work with. I will impress you somehow.' He was, after all, senpai's best student.

The somewhat chilly reception took her aback. When she looked to her shishou for reassurance, she saw nothing helpful there, though she did note that her new training partner's expression tightened further. She scowled. 'Fine. I don't care if you're a hunk. You're going down.'

Aiko took a moment to construct a profile of the man in front of her. He was somewhere between 17 and his early 20s, had been a member of ANBU for most of that, and was socially impaired. He was highly skilled, and of above average intelligence
.
'This is going to be like taking candy from a baby. Slightly morally dubious, but hilariously easy and easily hilarious.'
"You'll remember what we talked about?"

Yamato nodded, giving Kakashi his full attention and a sheepish smile, rubbing at his neck. "Hai, senpai!"

"Superb. Play nice, kids." Book already out, her bastard of a shishou just abandoned her to an eighteen year old who looked to have a grudge against her for some reason.

'Shishou, I will get you back for this.' He knew what was going on, she was sure of it.

"Alright then. Let's see what you can do." Yamato clapped his hands together, businesslike expression on his face. "Wood style!" The two pillars that rose above the tree line were probably supposed to impress her.

She twitched. 'Why do boys always shout out what they're doing? I mean, I know it's supposed to be a mnemonic device to make learning jutsu easier, but at his level this guy should really be able to do that without telling everyone and their dog what's going on. How embarrassing.' Wordlessly, she visualized two shining chakra chains coming from her back, wrapping around her arms and shooting out twenty feet to pierce the pillars he had summoned, splitting them in half with a terrible crack.

Aiko grinned up at his mildly surprised expression. "You'll have to do better than that," she taunted. "What's the idea here? I thought you were going to teach me to be gentle, Yamato." She faked an innocent posture (with calculated adorable pointed-in-toes) and an ever-so-slightly breathy tone, interlacing her fingers and tilting her head to pout up at him. "Is shoving all that hard wood at me really the best way to teach me restraint?"

He sputtered incoherently.

'Point one to Aiko.'

________________________________________

"Anko…" Shizune groaned, rubbing at her head, and wishing that Tsunade-sama was around to deal with this. "You frightened the Academy students… and teachers."

It was a bit unconventional to have this conversation in her office at the hospital, (especially since the only chair other than hers had been borrowed from pediatrics) but she didn't really want to have the younger woman disciplined through official channels. She was somewhat fond of the snake summoner and a little protective—poor Anko had been poorly done by so far as Konoha was concerned. After her traitorous sensei had abandoned her, Anko had been looked on with suspicion. Official reprimands would hurt her more than they should.

Besides, she was waiting on results from some bloodwork from an academy student of dubious parentage who had displayed symptoms of a certain rare genetic disorder. She didn't want to leave her office for too long. That paperwork could corroborate her hypothesis. It would explain so much…

The other woman scowled irritably. "Well, Hokage-sama told me to find a child!"

Shizune blinked wearily. "What?" That… that didn't sound like something Tsunade-sama would say.

Anko nodded seriously, eyes closed and arms crossed. "Yes. She told me this morning that I needed to find a student to teach snake-summoning and my special taijutsu. I only know one child in person, and I'm not going to fight Hatake for her. So I went to the place where I knew children could be found!" She held up a finger. "I wanted to find the best one!"

'Why me?' Shizune bemoaned. Outwardly, she just sighed in understanding. "I don't think that's what she meant. First of all, it would take years to get an Academy student up to the level where they could hope to use summoning. That takes a lot of chakra. Therefore, you'd be better off with a student who is already a genin, ideally one without a regular sensei so they have plenty of time to work with you. If you do pick a student who has a sensei, make sure they're one who doesn't spend too much time working on a family style or something. Secondly, that's not how you find a student." She deadpanned. "You're going to have to talk to one. Not just stare silently and test their reflexes with senbon."

After a moment's thought, she added, "and it tends to unnerve people when you don't blink. Remember to do that."

She looked thoroughly unimpressed, but Anko seemed to have absorbed the lecture. "Where am I going to find a child if I can't use the Academy?" she whined. "I don't work with any, I don't know anyone with one I can borrow, and I've never seen one in the places I frequent."

Shizune shrugged helplessly. 'That may be because you spend all your free time at the bars and adult bookstores?' Then there was a knock on the door. Before she could call out for the person to enter or wait, the door flung open and Uzumaki Karin stomped in, a stormcloud practically visible over her head. "Here," she said brusquely, tossing a clipboard onto Shizune's desk with a clatter. "Enjoy. I'd stay and chat, but apparently I need remedial instruction on bedside manner." The sneer that accompanied this statement was vicious.

The door slammed shut before the two adult women could blink.

"Sorry about that," Shizune laughed. Poor grumpy Karin. She was-

"She's perfect," Anko breathed. She stood jerkily, letting her humorously undersized chair fall over with a clatter. She moved with enough speed to confuse an unwary observer into thinking she'd used shunshin, pinning Karin against the wall with one hand and grinning ferally into her face.

A lesser genin might have frozen in the face of a larger, mentally unstable predator. Karin reflexively head-butted the other woman and bonelessly relaxed before twisting to the side and nearly escaping before Anko slipped around and pinned her again with one hand under Karin's chin, the other on her shoulder. Karin might have kept struggling… if it weren't for the black-scaled snakes twisting around her torso.

A wise woman knew when she was outmatched by someone dangerously crazy. Karin went limp, tilting her head up and exposing her vulnerable throat.

The crazy woman who had assaulted her licked her lips slowly, leaning in so close that warm breath (scented like candy apples) washed across Karin's face. "I want you," she crooned, stroking Karin's face. Karin blinked, straining to look down and investigate the softness she could feel pressing against her chest. "To be my student." She relaxed. That made much more sense. But it was mildly disappointing as well.

Karin was an equal-opportunity pervert.

"Would I get to use snakes?" At the affirmation, Karin shrugged. "Sure, I guess."

Anko froze. That wasn't what she'd been expecting. First, the teacher made vaguely sexual advances on the young girl who needed to learn the ways of the world. Then the student blushed and demurred, maybe struggling a little. Then-
'Ah,' she realized. 'I'm getting this mixed up with Icha Icha Teacher's Pet. I think this is okay.' Anko nodded decisively, remembering to blink after a few more seconds. She'd never had a student. She had been asked to test a genin team once, but it hadn't worked out.

Something about quitting the shinobi force to get away from her or something.

"But," the redhead she had recently accosted added. "I have two conditions. "Firstly, you have to teach my friend, too. Secondly…" she paused. "Tell me who the hell you are, and why should I want to learn from you."

It was the beginning of something beautiful, Anko just knew it. She grinned toothily. "The beautiful, busty and talented, Mitarashi Anko, your new shishou and personal hero!" she struck a pose. The redhead blinked, glancing down at the snakes unwinding from her body.

"Sounds good." This Anko person was pretty busty. She could be telling the truth about the rest, and it was the first offer Karin had gotten from a potential teacher with combat abilities. Being a medic was all well and good, but it wasn't what she had envisioned when she had joined the ranks of shinobi.

________________________________________

It was almost time for the lunch break, and she was working as efficiently as possible. Tsunade had the short warning of her secretary making an alarmed sound on the outside of her closed door, but she wasn't entirely prepared to have her door slam open. Sasuke jerked from his position curled up on the couch with a book, doing his best to look alert.

"I have arrived, triumphant once more!"

She groaned, rubbing at her forehead and wondering just how her sensei had dealt with these lunatics for so long. No wonder he'd gone around the bend. She envied his retirement.

"Hi, Sasuke-san!" was quickly followed by a squeaked, "Hello, Uchiha-san."

She didn't want to look. She didn't, really. But she had to. There was Anko, standing with her legs wide apart and a girl over each shoulder, torsos hanging down her back and held up with one arm across each of their thighs.

Her poor student stared dumbly, perhaps unduly interested in all the adolescent booty on display, nicely framing Anko-chan's cans. Then he stiffened like someone had hit him across the face with a brick, turning away and concentrating on his book like his life depended on it. His only reply was a grunted "Hn".

The poor thing was feeling hormones hit him like two tons of rock. He was at that age. Tsunade, however, was less easily distracted.

"Kai!"

When nothing changed, she had to abandon the hopeful idea that she could solve whatever the hell this was by hitting Jiraiya.
"Hokage-sama! I found not one but two students!" She grinned cheekily. "How's that? Shizune-chyyaaaan told me that I'd be better off with a student who was already graduated from the academy."

Tsunade stared flatly. "I'm afraid to tell you that I can't identify my kunoichi by ass," she deadpanned. "Jiraiya never taught me that forbidden technique." 'He did offer, multiple times.' "Who exactly have you found to be your student?"
'And did they actually agree? It's not normal to physically carry them around like sacks of rice.'

"Um…" Anko glanced down. "I never asked their names, actually."

'Idiots, one and all.' She groaned, exchanging a sympathetic glance with her younger student.

"Uzumaki Karin!" emanated from the vicinity of Anko's back. She vaguely noted the long red hair hanging down around by the jounin's hip. That still didn't answer… "Um, um… Hyuuga Hinata, Hokage-sama," came a much quieter voice, rising in slight panic towards the end.

Anko dropped the girls onto the floor, spinning around to check. "What, really?"

Tsunade peered over her desk, mildly interested. She'd heard a fair bit about this girl, but nothing that indicated someone like Anko would take interest in her.

It was actually a bit scandalous—the first Hyuuga heir in recorded history ever actually being declared unsuitable to inherit and marked for the Branch clan to prevent her from ever inheriting. It was an unnecessarily vicious blow. Like many other ass-backwards clans, the Hyuuga were sexist. They allowed women to inherit, but not to form Branch clans. Normally, neither of the girls would have been branded. The girl who didn't inherit would have been married off to another main family member.
'Actually,' she mused, 'that makes some sense. Anko-chan might have sympathy for another outcast.'

The Uzumaki rubbing her ass fit the same pattern as well, in a way. She'd come from outside the village and stayed on the grace of her 'cousin' and the Sandaime.

"Alright," she said, eager to get these people out of her office. "I approve. I assume you've talked to Kurenai about borrowing her student?"

Anko opened her mouth and took a breath, eyes flickering around the office as if looking for an escape. Sasuke made a rude noise, curled up as he was like a cat in between the cushions of the couch Tsunade had made him bring from her home. (It made nap time much more pleasant).

"Take care of that," she said dryly, turning back to her work. "I expect to hear good things about you two." Then she thought better of that. "You too, Anko. Behave. Don't think I didn't hear about you attacking a group of Academy students on recess break this morning."

Hinata shot her new teacher an alarmed look. Anko rolled her eyes, twisting a kunai around her fingers.

________________________________________

"Good god, what happened to you?" Temari blurted out when she bumped into her target by coincidence outside the Hokage tower. Then she winced. That wasn't how she had intended to start subtly gathering information. (Her reconnaissance yesterday had been inconclusive).

Luckily, the other girl didn't seem to care. She shrugged, tugging her fingers through a pigtail and dislodging what looked to be woodchips. "Training," she said matter-of-factly before nodding at each of them. "Temari-san, Gaara-san, Hare-san." The ANBU member on the wall twitched, relocating before Temari could turn and catch sight of her escort.

"Hello," Gaara said, somewhat unexpectedly. It was abrupt and awkward, but hell if it wasn't a try. Temari resigned herself to a Konoha in-law, stomach sinking when the girl smiled at him.

"I didn't expect to see you again." She crinkled her nose up at him. "Ah, sorry about what happened last time." She clasped her hands and fidgeted in a way that Temari was disgusted to notice was absolutely adorable. "Kiba-san has good intentions, but I'm afraid he can be a bit… abrasive."

That was a polite understatement. Aiko had been too disgusted with his ham-handedness to maintain conversation with him for long, especially when he tried to take her up on her offer to sit with her. She'd mostly said that to pacify him, not because she was interested. Kiba was such a flirt—all the girls in their age group knew not to humor him. So she had left.

"I'm afraid I don't know your name." Temari gave a thin smile.

It was reciprocated. "How rude. Uzumaki Aiko, very nice to meet you." She winced slightly, one hand drifting over to her left hip. "If you'll excuse me, I was actually on my way to a medic nin."

Well. Sasuke might not technically have that title yet, but she'd rather let him practice on her than go to the hospital. She didn't dislike it like many older ninjas did, but it was much easier to cut through all the bureaucratic crap. Besides, Sasuke was always at least accommodating when she offered to be used as a practice dummy.

________________________________________
Omake

Sore, bruised, and mildly more irritable than usual from a particularly vicious kenjutsu lesson, Sasuke tugged as patiently as possible on Tonton's leash. This was without a doubt the most undignified part of his apprenticeship.
Getting alcohol and lunch for his shishou? Sure, why the hell not. It wasn't that far out of his way. Having to work in the hospital with leering nurses? It was perhaps a bit below him, but it allowed him to practice the essential skills that led to the S-class jutsu Tsunade would teach him when he was powerful enough.

But walking the pig when Shizune was leading surgery… Sasuke shuddered. A small group of civilian girls in those idiotically impractical dresses that were apparently fashionable now giggled at him, jostling each other and whispering pointedly. 'At least the idiot is out of the country,' he consoled himself. Kami only knew that Naruto would never let him live this down.

Chapter Text

"I've brought you here to discuss your imminent retirement."

Koharu choked on nothing, hacking in a most undignified manner. At her side, Homura looked most unimpressed, shuffling his stiff feet against the luxurious teal rug Tsunade had installed in her office to match the couch from home.

"Now really, Tsunade-chan, that isn't very funny." He gave her a disapproving look.

"No, it isn't," she agreed easily. Her hands were folded on the desk- she had called them to her office like a school principal with naughty children- and she did indeed look dead serious. "It's time to switch out our current system. A changing of the guard, if you will. I actually think that the two of you will agree that the proposed reforms are in Konoha's best interests."

She snapped her fingers, and Shizune wordlessly handed her what looked to be a collection of folders. Her other apprentice was in the room as well. He had no idea what was going on, but he was obediently standing silently and looking impassive. She would need his presence later to make a point very clear and prevent them from defending against her argument.
She'd like to see the old farts look him in the eye and defend exterminating his clan when they desperately wanted him to spawn another one for the good of the village.

"Granted, the village isn't actually that old," she began, spreading out the folders on her desk. "So what we have established as a council is hardly a time-honored tradition. You two are the second council that Konoha has ever had, but the original reasoning behind the two-man council is long past. Originally, the council was representatives of the two noble clans of Konoha that founded the alliance. That is no longer the case. The original purpose of the council was to be the voice of the people whispering in the Hokage's ear."

Koharu was very, very still.

Tsunade deliberately did not smile. Despite the fact that they were militant old bags of wind, the two in front of her really did have Konoha's best interests in mind. "For all your years of commendable experience, talents, and intelligence, I don't think anyone would make the claim that the two teammates of a man elected to the Hokage position over half a century ago are now able to speak for the will of the people. That Hokage has retired, and with him the hint of nepotism that encouraged that appointment," she couldn't resist adding.

"Now, you listen here," Homura began to bluster. She looked very unimpressed. "We have served this village for longer than you've been alive!"

"I know, and that's part of the problem," she drawled. "Surely you are not so delusional to think that you will live forever? You two have been shouldering the burdens that the Third Hokage was less adept with or interested in for a while now. He has retired, for the second time," she enunciated carefully. "It's time for you to pick your replacements."

That was when she flipped open the first of the folders. "The new council," she drawled easily, enjoying the scripted performance, "will consist of five members. A consensus of all five would overrule any proposed action by a Hokage. As it is now, the only role of the Council—the supposed will of the people—is to provide guidance. I am not so naïve as to think you always agreed with my predecessors, not least because I have detailed information about times that you two felt sensei was making a mistake and chose to follow another path."

The words were deliberately chosen. They had been phrased in such a way as to imply multiple things—that they may have been right about those things, that she had much more information than they would like, and that if they did not do as she wished, she could have them tried for treasonous actions.

A carrot and a stick. That skinny Nara brat had made some flowery analogy about flowers and deer, but Tsunade liked to call things what they were.

From their tense posture, both of the elders received her messages loud and clear. She savored it for just a moment—she hated having to play at their own game, but she wasn't a ham-handed brute. This route would serve her well. And oh, it was sweet to see them squirm.

She was almost hoping that she would get to use force, but her first route was that of diplomacy. If they greased the wheels, this transition would be easier.

"These five members will be selected to represent certain important factions within Konoha," she continued, drawing their attention back to her folders and passing the first one out. "For example, I have selected Morino Ibiki as a prospective candidate for the seat representing the intelligence division as one of the permanent perspectives we should be guided by. The other areas would be a representative from the Hospital's board of directors, the active duty sector, the Academy, and last but not least, a representative of the mercantile faction."

At their outraged expressions, she added, "I have several civilians from the Yamanaka clan in mind. Rest assured that the civilian perspective on the council will not be completely ignorant of the demands of a shinobi village. However, a large part of Konoha's strength is in our trade. Shinobi mouths cannot be fed without farmers, merchants, and the men and women whose children become our first generation shinobi to replace the waning strength of our clans."

They seemed a bit stunned. She took it as a good sign. "I would hope that you would be instrumental in selecting a successor for one of those categories."

With her stipulation that they avoid all appearance of nepotism and keep the Council separate from the guiding body of Clan Heads that made up the larger council, it would be nearly impossible for either of them to find a worthy candidate who would actually be a problem. But even if they both managed it, her three selections would outweigh them. Morino Ibiki was a nearly assured selection, after all. It was hard to claim that anyone other than the Head of their Intelligence would be able to represent that faction.

The folders she had provided and passed out at that point contained the profiles of the people she had considered, color-coded by the office they were meant to represent. In a rare fit of humor, Sasuke had made the active duty candidates leaf green, intelligence pink, and the hospital the color of the hideous tiling. (Shizune called it 'partially digested pumpkin'). The Academy candidate's steel grey and the civilian members' yellow (the shade of an expensive imported dye unavailable anywhere in the Fire Country) were less amusing, but still appropriate. Tsunade rather suspected he had some obsessive compulsive tendencies.
Neither of the antediluvian lizards slowly decaying on chairs in her office were idiots, for all their flaws. A bit paternalistic and condescending, but they did want what was best for Konoha. They would find the idea of a council with the power to outvote a Hokage very appealing, and the more organized she appeared to be, the better they would look upon the plan.

Silently, the two read through several folders, making faces at some and nodding slightly at others. That could have just been their weak dinosaur neck muscles wavering, though, she mocked internally. Her amusement stayed off her face completely. She couldn't allow them to treat her as a child.

Finally, Koharu spoke. "You suggest Maito Gai for the active duty shinobi? Do you really feel that is wise, Tsunade-chan?"
She recognized the query for the test that it was. Tsunade gave a faux-casual shrug. "Maito-san is perhaps one of the most unconventional shinobi in the village, but also undeniably one of the strongest active-duty shinobi. He is internationally regarded, practical, and highly intelligent. His experience with producing an admirable team will aid him, as will his almost two decades of active service both in wartime and in peace."

He was fucking weird as all hell, is what he was, but that didn't change the fact that he was brilliant.

"But we have other war heroes," Koharu probed innocently.

Tsunade gave a quiet huff. "It's true that Hatake Kakashi, for example, is perhaps both more intelligent and more powerful than Gai-san," she began, "But he does not possess the necessary temperament for that type of role. If all else fails he would be an excellent, powerful and decisive Hokage, but I do not believe he has the natural understanding of those around him that would aid him in speaking for his peers. Gai-san has contact with many age groups and specializations, whereas Hatake-san appears to have a decidedly anti-social bent."

(At this point, she could practically hear the hyena-like cackle that her youngest apprentice might have wanted to indulge in at the thought of his old sensei speaking for the people. It was a patently ludicrous thought. Maybe she was projecting, though.)
'Gotcha'. She let just a hint of amusement reach her honey eyes. They'd played into her hands by asking her about her selections and allowing her to illustrate that she had coherent arguments and logical explanations for each name on the shortlist.

"And this Umino Iruka?" Homura asked suddenly, holding up a glossy picture of the man in his Chuunin fatigues. "He seems very young for such a role."

"Umino?" She delicately raised one eyebrow. "He is two years older than you were when you two each assumed fifty percent of the responsibilities that these five members would shoulder amongst themselves," she said a bit too sweetly. "Surely it's possible that someone like that could handle less than half of what you did when you assumed your positions."

The air conditioning seemed to suddenly become more effective.

They couldn't well refute that without saying that appointing them had been a mistake and that they had their positions on the basis of nepotism. They did, of course, and they probably knew that on some level.

"We shall consider this proposition," Koharu said with quiet dignity, standing to leave. Homura got to his feet unsteadily as well.
"Just one more thing," Tsunade said lazily. 'Time for the teeth to come out'. "This is not a suggestion. I dearly hope that you will see the wisdom in this proposal, but with the information I have about your past habits of…" she pursed her lips, enjoying their carefully blank expressions. "say, indulging in actions that Sarutobi-sensei had found to be unwise, I would have to be foolish to keep you on my council. I do not have the benefit of working with you for years and cannot therefore trust that when you go behind my back and aid Danzo in rather interesting escapades that I will see the wisdom in them after the fact or forgive you out of friendship. Make no mistake. Your retirements will be announced two days from now at the spring festival, whether you do it yourselves through a smile or I explain after I have you arrested for treason tomorrow." She gave a decidedly feline smile. "Enjoy your retirement."

When the door slammed shut behind them and the privacy seals flared to life again, she allowed herself to relax. "Well, that was a fucking bore," she drawled. 'Two down, and the worst to go.' That would be a while yet, despite how desperately she wanted the damn thing done.

There was a chance that they would decide to fight her. They would first go to Danzo, then the Daimyo. Once Danzo realized the Daimyo had already been poisoned against the three of them (why support a candidate who could die off at any moment?) he would almost certainly leave the two of them out to dry. In turn… Well. They wouldn't like that much, now would they?
Shizune giggled, on a bit of an adrenaline fueled high. She let herself relax, having been tensely professional the entire time the council had been there.

"It's almost like you're planning on putting an idiot in office," Sasuke drawled with a slight smirk. "Are you sure you don't want to codify anything else to prevent Naruto from running Konoha into the ground or hurting himself? Maybe we should put protective cushions around all the corners in the building?"

"If you think of anything else, be sure to file all suggestions with Keiko," she snarked. Then she sighed, serious. There was one or two more unpleasant things to get out of the way at the moment, despite being done with bullying the elderly for the moment.

"Sasuke." He looked at her, smirk slipping off his features. "Shizune and I each have one issue to bring up with you." She cracked her knuckles. "Unfortunately, what I need to tell you is classified information above your clearance level. You desperately need to know, but there are also extenuating circumstances making it very unwise for me to tell you right now."
Both of his dark eyebrows went up. He'd been cleared to Jounin status as her apprentice so he could be helpful. "It relates to the indiscretions that I am tossing those old farts out on their asses for." She purposefully let bitterness seep into her tone.
He became very still, dark eyes unwavering. There weren't many good ways to interpret that.

"Once you have met either one of the two requirements for officially becoming a Clan Head, turning sixteen or proving yourself an A-class shinobi capable of defending the village's most important secrets, I will tell you everything that I was told soon after I gained this office." She regarded him steadily. "Can you trust my wisdom and that I act in your best interests until that time?" This wasn't an ideal solution. If she didn't have a grasp of his personality and think he could handle it, she would have tried to keep this information from him forever instead of trying to make sure he didn't become too infuriated when he found out he'd wasted five years hating a victim and being smiled at by the real murderers.

"Hai," he said slowly and a bit uncertainly, his loose clothes rustling slightly as he shifted.

"Good," she bit off, glad to be able to pass the buck. "Now, Shizune, tell him what you discovered."

Her older apprentice gave her a dirty look. Tsunade had agreed to break this news as well. She stepped forward gamely anyway, somewhat nervously fingering the blood test she had analyzed earlier that day. "Ah, do you remember when I asked you for clearance to access your family's medical history?" He nodded.

Tsunade tried not to snort. That wasn't a particularly brave start.

"For context, I think I should explain that the Uchiha clan actually had a tendency to demonstrate a certain rare blood disease in the last few generations," she continued professionally. "Very rare, of course. I think that there were four reported cases since the founding, but seeing as the disease has only been reported as manifesting outside the clan in the limited medical history we have, I would hypothesize that there's a definite genetic predisposition in your family line. We don't know much about it at all, actually, and it has never been cured."

"This does not inspire comfort," he deadpanned, crossing his arms. "So, is this your way of telling me I'm sick? Do I have a month left to live, perhaps?"

"No…" she coughed, eyes avoiding his face. "When an Academy student displayed symptoms, I thought to do some bloodwork."
Sasuke had gone pale in an instant when she'd said the world 'student', and was now looking distinctly green by 'bloodwork'. He was a smart boy.

"Um, well. There are five cases now. Congratulations." She held out a profile and gave a picture-perfect smile with just the right amount of teeth. "It's a girl. It looks like someone was pregnant with the love-child of a cousin of yours at the time of his death. That woman, a career Chuunin who passed away about a year ago, never released any information about the child's parentage." She coughed awkwardly. "Somewhat understandably so, given that Itachi is still at large."

There was a thump when Sasuke fainted dead away. It was the least dignified thing either woman had ever seen him do.

Tsunade peered over the edge of her desk and cackled. "Welcome to responsibility for another life, Uchiha Clan heir," she gasped out. She burst out into peals of laughter at Shizune's false disapproval. "Oh, live a little. It's funny. And just think, I bet the poor boy is going to be the one to figure out the cure."

Shizune cracked a reluctant smile, picking up her limp kohai easily and ruffling his hair after she deposited him on the couch. "He does excel in his areas of interest," she commented mildly. And it would be the first time a medic of any real caliber had investigated the disease, as the Uchiha had been far too proud for their own good and apparently of the idiotic idea that a predisposition for a certain disease tied to the carriers of Sharingan was an embarrassing sign of weakness.

________________________________________
"When do we leave?"

Temari jumped a little, sloshing her ice-cold water onto her lap. She grimaced, ignoring the television long enough to mop up the mess with a cushion and then toss it aside. Someone came to clean daily anyway. Living in Konoha was niiiice- no water restrictions or assigned times for bathing, air conditioning that she could adjust in the apartment, and a twitchy brunette who she could ring and ask for food at any time were all at her disposal.

'At this rate, I'm going to be able to proudly tell Kankuro that Gaara learned to speak in sentences while we were away. Won't he be surprised', she thought amusedly. He seemed marginally less terrifying now that she knew he could do something so human as get flustered over how to talk to a girl. Being in Konoha really had been good for him.

"Depends," she finally answered. Temari looked up at her brother lazily and patted the sqwooshy mauve couch in invitation. He leaned against the back instead, oddly intent as he loomed over her. "Why? Are you bored?"

Poor Gaara had been getting the brunt of what little enthusiasm that the irritating tour guide assigned to them for their stay could muster. (It was almost as if Konoha wanted to make sure they'd be kept out of trouble or something. She had no idea where they'd ever get an idea like that).

While she was in meetings with the Hokage or signing endless paperwork downstairs, he had endured monotonous tours of the hundreds of little bridges spanning tiny creeks and rock gardens and all manner of sissy things that Konoha boasted instead of practical things like minefields filled with poisonous cacti and poisonous animals. (It boggled the mind. What ninja cared that much about aesthetics? The Senju had apparently been fucking weird).

The tours had proven two different things to Temari- they were getting desperate to keep her little brother entertained, and he was demonstrating what seemed to be saintlike patience. Of course, since for Gaara days never ended and he probably stared at the walls or something for a polite eight hours while the rest of Konoha slept, it made sense that he would be anxious enough to want to leave.

"If things go well, we could be out of here tomorrow," she ventured, aiming for a noncommittal tone since he had never responded to her last try at conversation. She had actually been rather interested in staying for the cherry blossom viewing festival. She had never seen one before, and wasn't likely to have a chance again anytime soon.

Either she wasn't as good as she thought she was, or her little brother knew her far better than he'd indicated so far because he gave her a sharp look. Temari preferred to think it was the second option. Sheepishly, she shrugged and admitted that, "I was hoping to stay for the festival. The Hokage invited us, you know. I mean, it is a little childish, but…"

"That would be acceptable," Gaara said quietly, looking down at his hands uncertainly before slowly moving to pat her shoulder. She gifted him with a wide smile. Awkwardly, he tried to raise one half of his mouth in answer, baring a few teeth. His cheek sort of twitched, and then she couldn't help but laugh.

He looked mildly affronted, so she sat up and flung her arms around his neck, dragging him closer down to her level. It was nice to be able to touch her youngest brother, especially now that Kankuro had decided he was too grown up for cuddles. Temari was actually a very physical person.

"Thanks," she chirruped. "You know, they gave us a budget for shopping since we're here as ambassadors. Want to play dress up for the festival?"

The look he gave her in answer was revolted. She snickered, before conceding, "Okay, maybe not. I think I have one of my nicer outfits clean anyways. Do you need that washed?" She nodded at his blood-stained attire.

Gaara looked faintly perplexed. "I had these clothes washed before we left home."

'Eat your heart out, sissy Konoha nin,' Temari thought with a lopsided smirk. "Fair enough, little bro. Although normally, people wash their clothes every day here. Not exactly worried about water supplies." There had never seemed like any point in pressing the matter of hygiene with him, since he got blood on his clothes almost daily up until recently.

If he'd possessed eyebrows, they would have been raised then.

"Yeah, I know," she agreed blandly, and considered asking him why he didn't have any. Did he shave them off, or did he just not grow any? She hadn't thought it polite to ask before.

Still probably wasn't very polite, actually.
________________________________________

Yamato slouched like a recalcitrant child, red-faced and slightly shamed. He could practically feel amusement in his senpai's gaze, though the only hints were in that one visible eye.

"And how did practice go earlier today?" he inquired lightly, a strange lilt in his voice. Yamato shuffled his feet guiltily.
Stiffly, he replied, "Aiko-san may be more talented than I gave her credit for."

That was a slight understatement. She had kept him on the run, and he was relatively certain that she wasn't working very hard to gentle her blows. The difficulty of using her chains for restraint partially lay in the fact that she would be using them on moving targets. The girl could easily wrap them around existing wood without even cracking it (a low bar for measuring gentleness, but he'd take what he could get since he was not planning on letting her touch him with them) but as soon as she had to act against a moving target all hell broke loose.

However, after he had somehow managed to offend her, he was relatively certain that her intent had been less to practice and more to make a point. It was impractical, and that confused him a bit. They would have to work together again at least once more. If she disliked him so, she should be as efficient as possible to end the working relationship.

Then again, he was a black kettle talking about a pot. He had let a teenager fluster him and get under his skin. He was already embarrassed before he'd gone to his apartment and found that his hair and clothes were full of splinters. And so here he was, gently shedding bits of trash in front of his personal hero. Yamato took a moment to feel a little sorry for himself.
There was a pointed silence while Kakashi mercilessly waited for the younger man to continue, completely ignoring the obvious plea in watery dark eyes. "Is that a report, soldier?"

He coughed, tugging at his flak jacket. It was a different weight distribution than ANBU gear, and he wasn't yet used to it. He didn't venture out in plainclothes much. "Well, um. By the end of things, she did have somewhat of a grasp of using her chakra chains in a way that didn't damage wood, but I am not entirely confident she will be able to safely use them as a method of restraint for living beings."

"Oh?" his bastard of a senpai inquired easily. "Were you correct about your assumption that she would probably not be able to do too much damage, or did you need to help her master gentle handling against your wood before you risked flesh?"
The wording, though factual… was disturbingly reminiscent of his terrible experience. 'You fucker,' Yamato thought a little darkly, 'you knew. You knew about that little monster.' Outwardly, he maintained as impassive an expression as possible.
There was absolutely no chance his senpai was fooled.

"No. Aiko-san demonstrated… disturbing proficiency with damaging my wood." His ears were scarlet, and there was an altogether strange tone in his voice. Kakashi favored him with a glance. Defensively, Yamato added, "She also demonstrated by far the filthiest vocabulary I've ever encountered."

Kakashi valiantly managed not to snicker. Poor uptight Tenzou. He gave his cute little kohai an unimpressed expression. "Who, precious little Aiko-chan? Ah, that's funny Tenzou." He practically leered. "What a joker you are."

"Yamato!" his kohai practically yelped, coloring around his collar. "It's Yamato now." Then he gave a slight pout, as if considering refuting his senpai's apparent misconception about the nature of his apprentice. Then again, complaining might signal to her that she'd somehow won a psychological victory, which would be unacceptable. He'd won their spar, of course. He was former ANBU and an A-class shinobi. It would have been an utter disgrace if he hadn't.

Then again, it was also a bit disgraceful that he had let her fluster him into turning their training into a spar. It had been supposed to be a controlled exercise. By the end, he involuntarily cringed every time he was pushed into using his unique jutsu to push her abilities. The comments about being overwhelmed by his barrage and so on didn't help, either. That little brat was a hell of a voice actor. If he didn't know what had been going on…

He involuntarily tugged at his collar, swallowing hard. 'She's not even fourteen,' he reminded himself desperately. 'She doesn't know what she's talking about.'

Yamato carefully steered this thoughts away from that dark path. That way only leads to madness. She wouldn't act so... so… Well. That wouldn't happen again if someone else was there to witness, right? The girl had seemed perfectly sweet and innocent until Kakashi-senpai had left. Overly saccharine, in fact. …suspiciously so…

Yamato had the sudden suspicion that he'd been played. She'd never been a fluffball in the first place, had she.

"Well then, Yamato," Kakashi breathed, taking a step in. His heartrate jumped, and he went very still while his senpai practically purred into his ear. "I suppose that I'll still need your help."

"Hai," he agreed dumbly before he knew what he'd said.

"Excellent." Kakashi snapped backwards, no longer leaning in and somehow looming over Yamato and disrupting his thought processes. "I'll find you when I need help again."

Flustered, Yamato jumped and moved to waive his hands, saying that he'd changed his mind or that he wasn't the best to help her or please god senpai, don't leave me alone with a girl again- but it was too late. His senpai gave a little wave and was gone.
'That is the rudest way to end a conversation,' he pouted to himself, sinking down into his couch with no care for the mess he was leaving. (Senpai had ambushed him when he came home, having placidly eaten the leftovers in the fridge with no apparent shame whatsoever). He didn't even know when his senpai would want his help again.

Then again, that meant that Kakashi-senpai would seek him out on his own. Yamato brightened.
________________________________________
"Booooring," Aiko whined, channeling Naruto just a little bit. Absently, Ino reached back and smacked her upside the head. She cringed with the force of the blow, lessening the force behind it but didn't bother to dodge. She'd deserved it.

This was a particular ritual that Aiko had never taken part in to her memory, though she had heard tell of it before.
'Funny, it always seemed so much more interesting in movies,' she mused. She had obediently parked her butt on a bench outside the fitting room where Karin was tugging Hinata into a gorgeous kimono for the festival the day after tomorrow. She wasn't entirely sure where they had picked Ino up, but she had come with a wide-eyed, patient boy Aiko had never met who was apparently her designated shopping bag holder. He was looking a little unbalanced, she noted critically. But he was very strong, probably either a low-level shinobi or someone who worked out a lot. A lesser man might have sagged under the bolts of fabric Ino was throwing around haphazardly. From what Aiko gathered, Ino and her mother had a tradition of making their own kimono for this festival. The woman must have been very talented, because the pictures Ino trotted out proved that she wasn't shoddily dressed at past events.

"Oh!" Ino gasped theatrically, hands flying up to her mouth. "You gorgeous bitch! Everyone, look at Hinata."

The girl herself was flushing when Aiko lifted her head to see what the fuss was about, but Hinata resolutely stared straight forward. It was a marked improvement on her old habit of staring at the ground (or fainting, god forbid). The kimono itself had been excellently tailored to her graceful form. Doubtlessly the patterns of yellow, green, and pink birds and flowers meant something incredibly poignant, but Aiko had no idea. She'd forgotten pretty much everything she'd learned about flower meanings and kimono selection. Aiko liked clothes quite a bit, but they were usually much simpler.

Karin squealed, Ino's boy toy gazed for just a little too long and sputtered out something complimentary, and a group of slightly older girls they didn't know came over to gush. Apparently, Hinata was going to be the prettiest girl at the whole damn festival. When the group looked at her expectantly, Aiko hurried to think of something appropriate to say.

"Where are you going to put your weapons in that?"

Apparently, that wasn't the magic phrase she was looking for. Hinata gave a surprised sort of laugh, but Karin face-palmed and Ino gave her a bewildered look. She shrugged helplessly in response, giving Aiko a particularly disgusted look through her fingers.

"How did you pass your traditional dress class when you started school?"

Aiko shrugged uncaringly. "Naruto," she replied simply as if that explained everything. Then she frowned. 'Come to think of it, that probably only creates more questions for them,' she realized. No one said anything. Impatiently, she tapped at the weapons pouch on her thigh. It was a bit of a security blanket and comforting habit for her.

"Who is dressing you for this?" Ino finally managed, sounding disturbingly flat.

"Um… Karin?" she said, making it more of a question than a statement and peering over at her 'cousin'. Ino patted her arm.
"Good call. Actually, if you don't mind I'd like to help. Doesn't she have such exotic coloring?" Ino tugged on Aiko's hair and poked her pale cheek with one of her harpy talons before whipping around to ignore her again.

'It's like I'm an animal for sale.' Slightly offended, she slouched against a wall and just waited for it all to be over. She had no idea why, but they eventually put her in a pink and brown confection and did their level best to force any and all oxygen out of her body with the obi.

"That's too tight," she blandly slipped out, slapping their hands away and loosening it herself. Why would they do that? The dress was already impractical enough. Reducing her cardio abilities would be an outright hindrance.

Ino and Karin shared an inscrutable look at her expense. She rolled her eyes. She didn't need to look sexy. She was thirteen.
That was in the afternoon, and Aiko had split from her other companions. Normally she might have been miffed about carrying all the bags home, but she was just grateful to be free. Hinata and Karin were going to meet with their new sensei to train for the first time, and had made a quick change in the shop before taking off to training ground 44.

Aiko almost considered pitying them. They didn't seem to understand what they'd gotten into, even after Kurenai broke out into a laughing fit and kept trying to congratulate them for pulling a hilarious prank. When they assured her that they really were asking permission for Hinata to do supplementary training with Anko, she had reportedly gotten a very strange expression before muttering something indistinguishable that they took as permission.

Then again, if they couldn't take hints like that, they probably deserved the full-throttle crazy train coming their way.

She was glad for both of them, actually. Karin's combat abilities were poor and she had really been feeling stifled in the hospital (she had a lot of anger to work off). Hinata's combat stats weren't the greatest either, (and if she never worked up the bravery to go back to the Hyuuga manse and seek out further jyuuken training, they probably wouldn't get much better without Anko's timely intervention) but her real issue was her crippling lack of confidence. She had been gradually opening up, especially at the house, but she still reverted sometimes in public to a stuttering mess. If Anko (the self-proclaimed sexiest kunoichi in Hi no Kuni, most powerful and graceful master of snake ninjutsu and saint for a religion she planned on inventing) couldn't help Hinata gain some rocking abilities and the capacity to recognize them as such, then no one in the world could hope to help that girl.

'Of course, that's if they survive the training.' Aiko snorted in a really unbecoming manner when her two housemates dragged their sorry carcasses to the house about five hours later in the dead of the night while she'd been scribbling in one of her books. "You two look like shit," she cackled, having just flipped on the porch light when she heard a noise. She was in a thin blue yukata instead of her day clothes, but technically decent enough to come greet them.

Karin gave her a hideous look through red-rimmed eyes and snarled, "Bite me!" Hinata made some strange sound she couldn't quite identify.
From behind them, Anko tutted. "Tsk tsk, Hinata." She shook her head sadly. "What did I say about that? Use your words."
Hinata whimpered. The snake mistress nudged at her ribs with an elbow.

"What do we say when someone tells us we look like shit?" she patiently coached, looking for all the world like a kindergarten teacher. It was uncanny, and Aiko shivered involuntarily.

The small girl took a deep, shaking breath, looked up at Aiko, and gave a weak and very obviously practiced glare. "Go s-suck a lemon."

Karin grinned feebly, pushing past Aiko into the house and collapsing at the table with her shoes still on. "Atta girl, Hinata."
Aiko couldn't help but feel proud as well. "Would you like to come in?" She held the door open further to Anko as Hinata shuffled in like a zombie. Anko looked a bit surprised, pointing at herself.

"What, me? I was just walking them home, since I thought the poor babies might collapse. They're out of shape." Karin managed to stick her tongue out at the older woman. The shuriken that Anko idly flung in response thudded into the table a centimeter from her finger. She was apparently too tired to flinch away, shrugging instead and resting her forehead on the table.

"I'm sure," she agreed placidly. "Invitation's still open. I don't have to be up early tomorrow."

Slowly, Anko smiled, looking a bit uncertain. That was about when Aiko realized that Anko was still probably a bit of an outcast and felt like shit for never having invited her over before.

"C'mon." She nudged a pair of house shoes at Anko. "Sorry about it being a spare, I'll get you a pair of your own tomorrow, if princess priss can tolerate the horror of someone using the communal shoes I bought for people to use for one night." Her voice easily carried throughout the house as Hinata shuffled around making quiet noises in the spare bedroom where she had been staying. (At this point, it was almost her bedroom, really).

"Right now, I don't care if she eats them," Karin croaked out from the kitchen.

Anko favored her with an unimpressed look, leaning over to slip off her ninja standard sandals. "You know, you should take a shower before Hinata-chan uses up all the hot water."

Karin actually let out a few tears and a whimper, pushing herself up with shaky arms. "Kill me now, someone. Anyone."

"No one do it," Hinata half-whispered raspily from the bathroom door, catching everyone's attention with an unusually giddy little smile that Aiko thought might signal she was feeling lightheaded. "If I have to feel like this, so do you." Then she slipped inside and quietly shut the door, leaving everyone else in stunned silence before the two kunoichi who didn't ache started laughing nearly hysterically when the water turned on.

"Not funny," Karin wailed.

When they managed to stop laughing, Anko demandingly tugged Aiko into the front room and covertly pulled out a small orange box from her hip pouch… which Aiko was downright shocked to recognize as a digital camera case.

"Before you judge me, I want you to know that I was gauging their ability to work together under adverse circumstances," she began, looking only slightly guilty. "To prove that they had what it took to be my students, you understand. I don't want to train no selfish little brats."

"I don't judge, promise," she mumbled distractedly before prodding at the camera. "Where did you get that?" she breathed, raising an eyebrow. Those things were not cheap. In the kitchen, Karin moaned sadly, but didn't seem to be interested in what they were whispering about.

The older girl shrugged conspiratorially. "Hey, it was my first day as a teacher," she hissed. "I had to immortalize it. For posterity, you understand. Would you like to see them fighting the giant tigers with their legs tied together?"

Aiko blinked, not entirely sure she'd heard that properly. "What, like for a three-legged race?"

Anko nodded seriously. "Yeah, the tigers interrupted, but that was almost better than what I'd planned."

"You are a terrible person," she spoke out loud with too much volume, a bit stunned. Then she snatched at the camera. "I think I'm in love with you. Of course I want to see that."

Chapter Text

"What an impudent little brat," Koharu muttered, feeling the ache in her bones more than usual after repeating the slightly embarrassing story.

And it was embarrassing that her Hokage would all but accuse her of being older than dirt, offer to put in place an advising system that she could actually somewhat trust to keep a Hokage in check (implying that her job had been poorly thought out in the first place), and then metaphorically remind her that Tsunade could always hit her with the door on her way out if they didn't comply gracefully. She felt flustered, depressingly old and feeble and useless, and resentful of having her years of faithful service doubted. Koharu had never kept her position out of lust for power. It was the best way that she could serve the village and she felt that she could still do more good for years to come, especially since Tsunade had barely begun her term. Some of the decisions she had made over the years kept her up at night, but they had not been made out of cruelty or carelessness.

Then again, she actually felt much more comfortable with admitting that Tsunade was actually a capable Hokage than she would have only that morning when she had received a summons to the tower. Her will was strong and she was both clever and fierce. The only problem was that from her perspective it was a kitten's cleverness. Tsunade didn't know the games of wily old cats nearly as well as she should.

Two of her three oldest living friends made sounds of agreement. Danzo coughed into a heavily bandaged fist. She winced internally at the thought of that contamination, but minded her own business.

"What do you plan to do now?"

The question hung in the air between them. Koharu chewed on it, tasted the thought, and found herself at an impasse. "I was not planning to retire for many years now," she reminisced. Then she gave a bitter little laugh. "Of course, I had never expected that little Tsunade-chan would grow such large teeth either."

"I have a grandchild in the Academy," Homura suddenly mused, blinking gummily. "Perhaps… Perhaps there is some reason behind what our Hokage has to say." He gave his companions a sly smile. "Although she doesn't seem to have as many tricks up her sleeve as she really should to try something unprecedented like this. Eh Danzo?"

He didn't smile, but there was a palpable sense of amusement about him. "Indeed."

"I admit I had doubts about Tsunade-chan's suitability for Hokage," Homura spoke quietly. Then he nodded his head shakily as if in agreement with his own statement. "But she has surprised me. She is much… bolder than Sarutobi. When she was elected, Konoha was as weak as it has been since the Nine-Tails wrought havoc on our forces. Yet now we look to have a binding alliance with one of the other great villages. Sand will never be able to bare teeth at us again. Even weakened, no one has been willing to test Konoha's strength with Tsunade leading. If we had a young, powerful shinobi as Hokage, Orochimaru might never have been able to sway Sand against us."

Danzo frowned. "Tsunade herself is not so young," he disagreed calmly. He folded his hands around the top of his cane. "If youth and enthusiasm for the job were the measure of a Hokage's power and ability, perhaps we should consider Sarutobi Konohomaru's name in contention for the title."

It was always disturbing when he made a joke. Koharu exhaled in amusement, tapping her own fingers on her kimono. "Perhaps telling me that Tsunade-chan, who was not yet born when we began our careers, is not young herself is a poor way to sway me into acting against her wishes." He grunted.
And that was the crux of the matter. Whether or not they wanted to defy the will of their Hokage, who they were sworn to serve. Koharu rather suspected that she and Homura could—they had many allies in the Daimyo's court as well as the respect of the village. But that would become ugly and divisive at a time when Konoha needed to present a united front to her enemies.

She was not proud, but she had defied her Hokage in past. But that had always been on matters of great import, when it seemed that Sarutobi was too weak to do what was best for the village. In this case… well. She was not certain that Tsunade-chan would always make the best decisions, but she could not have that surety about any Kage. Koharu was not oblivious enough to pretend that she would be able to guide the village forever, and nor was she proud enough to believe that it would fail without her. Konoha had stood for many years and would for many years to come.

If she had a reason to fear the risks of fighting with Tsunade on this matter, a sinking feeling that Tsunade had a good argument, and the ability to choose worthy successors to guide Tsunade and the next Hokage (she was not foolish, she knew that Tsunade did not want the job for life) then the only reason to defy Tsunade was out of personal pride.

That Koharu could not indulge in.

________________________________________

"There are ninja festival games?" Karin's eyebrows probably couldn't go any higher into her hairline if she'd actually tried. "Not just the normal civilian ones?"

Aiko snorted, writing down their names on a registration sheet to hand in. "Of course there are. What did you think we were going to do, fleece the civilians at tossing bags of rice at targets and scooping goldfish?"

The fourteen year old huffed and turned away from her companions, embarrassed. "I had my eye on that giant purple bear," she informed darkly.

Hinata giggled, looking surprisingly fresh and cheerful considering her usual shyness and the fact that she was probably suffering muscle pains still. 'Maybe her herbal tea really is that effective?' Aiko eyed the dark-haired girl critically, noting that her movements appeared to be completely free of winces or stiffness. It had been impressive enough that Hinata had mixed a tea blend on her own that actually tasted good and wasn't poisonous, but she had harbored some skepticism about what pain-killing properties it really possessed.

'Well, good for her.' Aiko flounced up to the registration desk and gave the slightly older girl on the other side a winning smile. "Three preregistered for the flower game, please."

"Here you go." The purple-haired girl that Aiko recognized as someone who worked in one of her favorite tea shops gave three pretty colored envelopes after cross-checking their names and doing some fussing around beneath the stand. She took them with thanks and a bow and went back to her companions. By that point, Karin was fussing with Hinata's already perfect hair as a cover for whispering something in her ear.

She decided not to ask, starting to walk towards the smell of something delicious in the stands somewhere and letting them move to catch up. As they passed a stand piled high with pretty rice papers and glitter where volunteers were helping children make paper lanterns to light when it grew dark, Aiko slipped open her envelope and looked at her target for the first time. She had to laugh. She already knew her target.

"Who did you get?" Hinata politely queried instead of flickering on her bloodline to peek. Aiko passed it over. "Oh." Hinata giggled too.

"What's so funny?" Karin took the sheet and read it with a shrug that wrinkled her silk kimono prettily and caught the light. "and what is this game, anyway?"

"This one is a bit like keep-away," Hinata explained quietly, delicately opening her own pink envelope. "Everyone who signed up ahead of time gets a partner selected from the pool of participants and a few paper flowers." She held up her own to demonstrate, but quickly tucked them away when the wind began to tug at them. "Everyone's flowers have their name on them, see? You get rewards for handing in as many flowers as possible at the end of the night, but you don't actually win unless you manage to get one of your target's flowers."

"So it's a stealing game?" Karin shrugged at the photo she pulled out of her own envelope, not knowing the girl who was her partner.

"In part," Aiko answered absentmindedly. "Although it's also to get you to talk to people you don't know. If you can't steal it, you can challenge someone to a contest of your choice for a flower, usually a footrace or something like that. And since only ninja can sign up, stealing is a lot harder than you'd think."

"So… why is it so funny that you got Kotetsu?" Karin prodded her in the side and gave her a smirk. "What, you have a crush on him or something? Isn't he one of the guys who is perpetually stuck as a gate guard?"

Aiko snorted and shoved her back. "Because I didn't realize he'd like this game, most certainly not, and yes, in that order. There's a version of this for Academy students, but since I started playing this one I've never had a partner who I already knew."

"Uzumaki-san!"

The voice was familiar. The fact that it was addressed to her and the enthusiasm with which it did so were unfamiliar. Slowwwwly, she turned to see Lee. "Yes, Lee-san?" Aiko tilted her head curiously, hoping against hope that the word 'challenge' hadn't summoned something too youthful for her to deal with right now.

"You ladies look lovely!" He gave them all a blinding grin and a thumbs-up, feet far apart in his usual 'ready' stance despite how silly it looked in traditional dress. (Marginally less silly than it did in a green jumpsuit, actually, but that was beside the point).

"You look very ni-ice as well," Hinata smiled back shyly, angling her body slightly towards Karin. He did look good- Aiko rather suspected that like her, someone had dressed him for the occasion. It wasn't the most masculine kimono she'd ever seen, but the grass green fabric with lighter green impressions of leaves falling and a cluster of pink blossoms at the bottom suited both the occasion and his personality. He blushed faintly at the compliment, apparently not having expected it.

"Have you seen Ino-san? She has been training me to participate in the ikebana competition, and it starts in only two hours. When I went to the place where I thought we were to meet, I did not find the stand."

Karin puffed up her cheeks like a fish and blew air out the side of her mouth with a slight sound, clearly amused. "Lee-san, that's because no one else is that early. They'll bring the flowers at the last minute so everything is nice for as long as possible."
He frowned slightly. "I see. So Ino-san will not be here for a while either." He shifted slightly, a bit uncomfortable.

Aiko valiantly resisted the urge to roll her eyes at her own mothering tendencies when her conscience suggested they invite him along until they found Ino. It was like she had some strange need to travel in a pack at all times.

"We're going to go get dango," Hinata offered of her own volition. Aiko tried not to look surprised. The girl was really getting bolder. "Would you like to accompany us?"

Lee flushed deeply pink, mouth moving silently for a second before he grinned and bowed jerkily. "I would be honored to escort you ladies."

She was almost surprised to not find Anko at the dango stand. It seemed like some sort of violation of nature. It was just one of those truths of the world- Anko was the first person to the dango stand and often stayed there long enough to order more than once. It was almost statistically unlikely not to find her there. They found a place to sit in the grass and talked, watching one of the craft stations bubble with children.

A little curious, Aiko squinted her eyes at whatever they were doing. It seemed to involve a lot of help from adults.
"They're helping the children with origami cranes," Hinata quietly informed her without lifting her head. Karin made a face.
"I'm no good at those," she declared, leaning against her friend. "All those picky little folds." She scrunched up her nose cutely. "Just, no. Not happening."

Lee looked at them curiously, but said nothing. Aiko sighed, not wanting to hear another tirade about Karin's distaste for origami (sadly, this wasn't the first time). "So, Lee. Are your teammates here?" She tugged off a green dango off the stick with her teeth.

After a while, the festival started to bustle and they wandered around as a group for a while before Ino swept in and carried Lee away in a cloud of perfume and babble about the civilian girl who was apparently her rival at this competition. Aiko pick-pocketed a pretty genin for a purple flower that she tucked into her hair. Then she realized that she hadn't noticed someone taking one of hers at some point, which sparked a laugh at her expense. It might have gone on longer if a quick check hadn't revealed that both her companions were completely out of flowers and someone had even taken Karin's copy of her partner's profile and left their name and address in return with a winky face. They did eventually see Anko shiftily sneaking away from a tea ceremony in full formal dress. Aiko tried not to giggle at how carefully her friend worked to avoid notice from—was that Sarutobi Asuma accompanying Hinata's teacher? Yes, it was.

"Oooh, I bet they're banging like bunnies," Karin mused. Hinata spit out a mouthful of water in surprise, flushing a pretty pink.
Aiko pursed her lips and really looked at the two—how they angled their bodies towards each other, where their feet and attention was pointed, and how far apart they were standing, and agreed, "Oh yeah. I bet she tops and he likes it when she dresses up."

Hinata gave a strange sound, like someone had stepped on a squirrel. Karin nudged her. "Hey now, don't be so uptight." She made a kissy sound. "I know you're interested, don't deny it. They're a beautiful couple."

"Yeah, I totally ship them," Aiko agreed absentmindedly, scanning the crowd for any Chuunin gate guards. The lack of response other than confused looks registered after a while. She blinked. "What?"

"What does 'ship them' mean?" Hinata asked.

'Oh. Duh. English phrase.'

She tapped her index finger against her lip, trying to think of an explanation. "It means," she decided, "that I think they should be a couple even if they aren't, and that when I write my inevitable tell-all dojinshi, I will claim that they are and make up an adorable relationship for them."

Karin choked. "Is… is that what all those books you've written in your room are like?"

She shook her head. "No, but it sounds fun." She had a wicked idea and a smile to match at that moment. "Hey, you two should help me write friend fiction." A pause. Then an explanation. "Friend fiction being stories about people we know, I mean."

"I like it," Hinata said suddenly, turning to face her and walking backwards. "That sounds fun. But…" she worried at her lip. "We're not going to tell Kurenai-sensei, right?"

"Probably not," Karin agreed easily, tossing her arms in the air and stretching. "Then it's decided! Tonight we write their steamy romance! It'll probably involve a lot of banging."

"I'm just going to pretend I didn't hear whatever that was," Sasuke said blandly, nursing a blank expression and a tall coffee that had clearly not come from the festival.

Aiko blinked in surprise. Karin fluttered her eyelashes. Hinata ducked her face and mumbled something.

"I didn't expect to see you here," Aiko offered when no one else spoke. "I guess it just didn't seem like something you'd enjoy. I'm glad to be wrong- you look very nice." She turned her face slightly and opened her mouth as she gave a theatrical wink. He did, of course, but he sort of always looked polished. He was the type of person who could wear a hospital gown on the runway and inspire a whole collection.

He looked away and scoffed, seeming to recede slightly into his dark blue kimono. "You were wrong. I'm here because I have to be when the old lady gives her address."

Some part of her registered humor at the fact that Sasuke had apparently adopted Naruto's irreverent nickname for their Hokage. Another part was busy marveling that she had somehow managed to forget that the spring festival was the event when the Hokage gave what she likened to a 'State of the Union' address. For some reason, she'd subconsciously thought that the Third Hokage's permanent retirement meant that the yearly speeches he gave were over too.

'Damn.' She didn't pout, but it was close. This was always so boring.

"Well, I'm glad you're here," Karin purred, snuggling into Hinata. "How have you been? I haven't seen you at the hospital in over a week, Sasuke-kun."

He gave her a mildly disturbed look, apparently not prepared to cope with her less professional side. "Fine."

"They're coming out," Hinata informed the group quietly. It was true—a few figures were visible gathering on the balcony overlooking the fairground. They weren't about to speak yet, however. Karin gave a start and opened her mouth to say something, turning around behind the group. Sasuke immediately stiffened and turned to follow her gaze.

"Mind if we stand with you? I'm afraid we don't know many people here."

Aiko didn't bother, having already sensed that Temari and Gaara were behind them. "Not at all." Hinata edged away, nearly hiding behind Karin and getting far closer to Sasuke than she usually would have risked when Temari came to stand by Aiko's left, Gaara next to her staring impassively forward.

"Thanks." The older girl gave a smile like sunshine that didn't quite fit her features but was altogether charming, and Aiko couldn't help but smile back.

"Everyone, this is Temari and Gaara. Gaara and Temari, this is my cousin Karin, our friend Hinata, and-"

"We've met," Sasuke interrupted shortly, turning away completely.

"Touchy," Temari hummed with a crooked smile.

________________________________________
As usual, Aiko did her best to take a nap standing on her feet when the endless speeches began. They weren't very long, but she wasn't very interested until she heard something that genuinely surprised her.

'The Council is retiring?'

She almost wished she was closer so that she could judge their expressions, but they seemed perfectly amiable when they waved and talked about the changes and who they had chosen to replace them. That was a riot that sent Hinata into laughter—Iruka-sensei? Gai? The scary man from the Chuunin exams? She didn't know the other two names, but the gamut she was familiar with was so wide that she couldn't help but find it funny.

When done speaking, the Council of Elders stepped back next to the Third Hokage where he leaned over the railing quietly while Tsunade resumed her talk. Something about the will of fire, gathering strength and powerful allies, (Gaara made a funny twitch that she barely caught) and basically just congratulated everyone for surviving another year. By that point, the sun was just setting, so it was with perfect timing that Tsunade ceremonially lit the first lights of the night.

Of course, this was a ninja village, so she did so with a theatrical spout of flame that caught onto a complicated system of wires and paper that lit hundreds of tiny lights inside the closest trees. The crowd positively roared with approval and parents began lighting their own tea candles to go in paper lanterns to light the way to the rest of the festival.

"That was less boring than I expected," Aiko mused when all was said and done. Hinata had a very serious mien, but Karin just looked bored. Sasuke had disappeared in a flicker almost immediately after Tsunade had left sight.

"Is it really so interesting that old people retired?" She put her hands on her hipbones and leaned back into a slight stretch. Temari gave an impolite snort, but observed them interestedly. She had no idea what was going on in Gaara's head, but he was quiet and still.

"Kind of," Aiko admitted. "They've had their positions for something like fifty years, and there isn't a set precedent for this. They could have theoretically kept their positions until they died."

And to the best of her foreknowledge, they had. How odd.

"Look, they're going to fall over at any moment," Karin said dryly, blinking in the rapid way that Aiko knew meant her contacts were bothering her. "It's a good thing they retired, and the new system makes a lot more sense." She shivered when the wind picked up a bit. "What else is there to do here, since the incredibly good-looking people who matter already lost the flower game miserably?"

"We could rent a boat," Hinata suggested timidly with a glance at the sand nin. She seemed to gather bravery from their lack of negative response, and continued, "Or we could see the flower arrangements Ino-san and Lee-san made."

"That would be nice," Aiko agreed. "and isn't that on the way to the closest temple? We could get a blessing."

"I don't care what we do, but we're going to have to avoid main street." Karin tossed her hair. "I might hurt someone if I have to hear the woman from down the row who has been practicing her koto every night for a week."

"Fair enough," Aiko agreed. She wasn't a fan either. "C'mon." She threaded her hands into her sleeves, touching the cold metal stored underneath for comfort. Then she looked back at a rather perplexed-looking Temari. "Are you two coming with?"
"Um, sure," she agreed, glancing at her brother. "If we're invited."

"Of course you are," Hinata gave a tiny bow and uncertain smile. Karin rolled her eyes fondly.

"Let's hurry, the crowd is starting to disperse. I don't want to be caught up in the worst of it."

Aiko rather enjoyed the press of bodies- she saw both Kotetsu and Izumo and took the chance to steal the flower from her target's lapel with a giggle. He saw her, but rolled his eyes and made a fake pout without interrupting his conversation. She took a moment to wonder where Kakashi-shishou was and hope he was having fun, even though he almost certainly had not come to the festival.

"I bet they're a couple," Karin muttered quietly. Temari gave a little jump.

Hinata pressed her lips together tightly, but failed to suppress a smile. "They keep saying they're not when Kiba asks, but I really doubt it," she whispered back, tossing her own look at the two Chuunin.

"I don't think I've ever seen one without the other," Aiko agreed before throwing her hands up. "Ah, young love. So cute!"
"I…" Hinata swallowed uncertainly, but forged ahead. Blinking, she forced out, "I ship it!" Karin burst into laughter and gave her a congratulatory high-five, and Aiko had to join in giggling.

"You people are weird," Temari muttered. Nonetheless, she stuck with them and obligingly got a blessing from the priest they found. Gaara didn't—he showed emotion for the first time that night and glared the man away from him. His sister flushed a little and apologized for him, but the man didn't seem to mind much.

When they finally found the ikebana display, it became clear that Ino was enjoying showing off the enormous flower pin in her hair that apparently was a gift to the winner. It was lucky she'd taken first, because if Lee (who had second place and edged out Ino's actual rival) had received it, doubtless he wouldn't have worn it.

'Lee must have practiced this the same way he does everything else.' Aiko smiled lopsidedly while her more knowledgeable companions talked about the pieces to their creators. Temari nudged her, looking uncomfortable. "Any idea what they're talking about?" she asked lowly.

Aiko shook her head amiably. "Not a clue. I'm terrible at all the girlish stuff, I just smile and nod and do what they tell me." She pulled at her kimono. "They dressed me, if you can't tell." She glanced at the two of them. "Not big fans of dressing up either?"

Temari snorted. "Not really, no."

Aiko hmmed absentmindedly. "Shame. You'd look really pretty in one of these. You have a better build for it than I do, actually. Want to go get naked and trade?" She gave a lascivious wink.

Temari's jaw dropped, and she really looked at the younger girl for the first time. But she didn't speak.

"I think I broke your sister," she said conversationally, turning to Gaara. He looked at her dully. "Sorry about that."

'I'm always surprised by how gravelly his voice is,' she mused when he finally spoke. Then the words registered.

"Kankuro informs me that she has always been dysfunctional." The tone was without inflection—it could only be a joke, but he'd said it so deadpan that she wasn't entirely sure. Temari rolled her eyes and whacked at the back of his head with her palm as if by reflex before stiffening, wide-eyed. After a second when nothing happened, she unfroze with a sheepish expression.

"Wellll, if Kankuro says it, it must be true," Aiko dragged out teasingly.

Temari gave a good-natured scowl and whacked the back of Aiko's head for good measure. "Honestly, you two shouldn't gang up and bully me. It'll hurt my delicate feelings for sure."
________________________________________
"She's perfect," Temari muttered sourly to herself that night, staring up at the ceiling. The kid effortlessly side-stepped Gaara's awkwardness in a way that made it seem she hadn't noticed. She was also violent and rude, which appealed to her for some reason. Temari had already known the girl was at least a competent ninja, but when she'd seen her at the festival dressed up like a doll she'd assumed her head was full of fluff. It had been a poor assumption, and she berated herself for letting stereotypes mislead her. Even in that kimono, the way the younger girl walked had hinted at long knives hidden on her thighs, shuriken in her sleeves, and doubtless other things Temari couldn't catch indication of.

Plus she had attitude.

The only downside was that she was apparently a total pervert, but her brother was thirteen. Doubtless, soon that would appeal to him. Any day now, in fact. (She gave him a suspicious look. He gave her a confused one in return).
________________________________________
Kind of a floofy chapter, but it still moved some things along

Chapter Text

"Aiko."

The girl in question blinked warily. The first thing she really registered about her abrupt awakening was that she was levered up in bed with one hand gripping the metal of the kunai that she kept at her bedside. The second was that Sasuke didn't usually wake her up in the middle of the night by coming in through her bedroom window (how did he get past the sensory seal she'd put up? That was mildly disturbing.).

Her first real thought was that something had to be very wrong. "Sasuke?" She flung the covers off and let her toes touch the cold floor with only a little grimace before she looked up at him. His eyes were even harder to read than usual, as they blended into the dark.

"I need to talk to you about something important." He paused, as if the next worlds physically pained him. "I need help."

"What do you need?" she paused for a moment. "And do I need my gear?"

"Not that kind of help."

"Okay." She took that as permission to make herself slightly less indecent by wrapping a house yukata on and tying it loosely. It was hot out, so she'd gone to bed in clingy shorts and a tank top.

Actually, he was lucky she hadn't been less clothed, she thought somewhat wryly with the part of her being that wasn't totally panicking over what the hell Sasuke might need so badly that he'd come to her in the dead of night.

"I'm decent. Can we talk in the front room, or are you worried about waking up the other two girls?" When he grimaced, she took that as a desire for more privacy and folded her legs criss-cross on her bed, patting beside her to invite him to sit. "What's happened?"

And then he actually sank down onto the fluffy futon. She tried not to goggle- holy hell, he must be exhausted or really out of sorts or something. That just wasn't Sasuke-like behavior.

"Three days ago, Shizune told me that…" He abruptly stopped and started again. "The Uchiha didn't encourage mixing with outsiders. It had never occurred to me that anyone had defied that." He gave a bitter little laugh. "I suppose it's lucky that it didn't occur to Itachi either."

Something clicked. "Sasuke… Are you trying to tell me you have family in the village?"

He nodded blankly, seeming to stare down at his hands. "I had a cousin once removed on my mother's side who had apparently been seeing a girl outside the clan when… He was seeing a girl six years ago in secret. Second generation Chuunin from a family of merchants." He made a strange sound that was almost a laugh. "My family would never have approved. And now… she's the only family I have. I don't know what to do. I haven't seen her yet. She's five now. And sick. Very sick. Apparently there's a family disease no one liked to talk about."

'Well, that sounds familiar'. Aiko rubbed at her face harshly with both hands, trying to get her thoughts in order. This… this was huge. She swallowed. God, where do you begin with something like this?

"Have you met her mother?" Aiko instantly knew that was the wrong question. He shook his head sharply.

"She's dead. About a year now. The girl- Fukiko lives with her aunt." He paused, and actually bit at his lip.

'It's so strange to see Sasuke looking young and uncertain.' She felt a rush of sympathy. "Do you want to get to know her?" she asked kindly. "It's understandable if you do."

"But selfish." He practically spat, hands clenching around the sheets. "If Itachi found out—if anyone found out, she'd be in danger. Now she's just some bastard orphan and no one cares."

"Don't say that," she snapped back automatically. "She is not. She's your cousin, Uchiha Fukiko and she's going to be totally badass when she grows up. Unless she doesn't want to be a kunoichi, in which case she's going to be amazing in some other way. And you'll be beating off the boys with a stick, probably the girls too". 'I've seen pictures of your family, you beautiful bastard. The pretty is genetic.'

She didn't want to make the sexist claim that 'boys are dumb'. Really, the problem here had more to do with his age, deeply held issues about family conflicting with his formative beliefs about what it meant to be kin, and his total lack of experience with the under-12 crowd. But it would have been easier to lament that boys are dumb at that moment.

Aiko scooted to sit directly beside him and leaned in. "This is the point where I give you a hug and you don't fight it. Because you need it, yeah." He glared weakly at her, but didn't protest when she wrapped her arms around his chest and rubbed at his back. "I think you should meet her. But your worry about keeping her secret isn't totally unfounded."

"We live in a ninja village," he deadpanned. "Someone is going to notice when I go to visit a black haired, black-eyed five year old. They're either going to assume I'm having an affair with the aunt or go do some investigating of their own. I'm not known for my love of children."

That was when a horrible, wicked thought occurred.

"You could be."

He actually recoiled at that.

Aiko puffed up her cheeks and blew the air out the side of her mouth as if to dismiss his skepticism. "No, really. I'm serious. I think that you should do a medical mastery project in pediatrics. You'd want to keep the specifics of what she's ill with very hush-hush, and obscure it by having a couple regular patients."

He stared. Really just stared.

It was both brilliant and completely stupid. People might question the apparent personality change, but not many people knew him at all and he had plenty of hidden depths. (Hard not to when you almost never talk to anyone about anything deeper than a mission report or lunch). Besides, all the gawking had probably already been done been Tsunade trotted him out as her new apprentice. And if she was right, he might be talking about the same obscure disease Itachi had… which was the only way she could see for him to have a chance at being helped at some point in the future.

She wasn't sure how to get to that point exactly, but she did know that the fate laid out for Itachi- dying at age 22 by a combination of sickness and suicide-by-brother was one she wanted to prevent. Not least because of what that would do to Sasuke. Aiko knew that she couldn't possibly understand what was going on in Itachi's head. Their experiences were far too different even without factoring the mental and emotional conditioning that he had doubtlessly bought into much more than she had, and he had made difficult choices she couldn't even dream about. She felt queasy at the thought of being asked to kill Kakashi-shishou or Sasuke or Hinata or Karin, even if it would save Naruto. She could have done it a year ago before she knew any of the last three very well. (She still couldn't physically kill shishou if she wanted to if he was in any condition slightly better than a coma, so that was a moot point). But now?

Uchiha Itachi was both completely mystifying (terrifyingly foreign) and someone she wanted to save. But that didn't mean that she was going to ignore the thought that his plan for life was completely insane. The last part, at least. Finding out that Itachi was innocent (and he would, he was Sasuke for crap's sake) after he'd killed the man would break Sasuke, or at least damage him irreparably.

"Why'd you come to me?" she asked, honestly curious about the answer. She hadn't thought they were that close.
He merely shrugged, then gave her a slightly disdainful look. "Who else was I going to ask about what it was like to raise a child? Kakashi? Shizune? Tsunade?"

The sarcasm was almost poisonous by the end, and she found herself giggling. "Okay, you have a point," she conceded. "and I will do my best to help you!" She gave him a cheesy grin just to see him roll his eyes at her. "Luckily for you, my best is much better than everyone else's, so everything is going to be fine."

________________________________________
After that wake-up call, it had been impossible to even consider going back to sleep. Instead Aiko began her morning conditioning significantly earlier than usual, running sprints around the village before the sky even hinted at a sunrise.

She was hitting a plateau in her speed training where it was much harder to get to the point of leg-shaking nausea that meant she had pushed herself again, but she wanted to get faster. Much faster. The only thing to do was go further and faster every day. She ran and ran and actually passed by Gai and Lee more than a couple of times when they got up to do their morning exercises, running around the village clockwise instead of her anti-clockwise. She also passed a gaggle of tiny girls who had to be ambitious Academy students, which made her smile and wave. It was hard not to giggle when they 'not whispered' far too loudly to each other about 'that was a real kunoichi, did you see?'.

Her failure to adequately prepare herself for an intense workout made itself known a few hours after dawn when she was brutalizing a training post. It manifested as a horrible sound from the region of her stomach that actually caused her to jump in surprise and take note of her hunger for the first time.

She stopped, mildly bewildered. 'I'm glad shishou wasn't here to see I'm such an incompetent nin that I can't even keep track of my own body.'

Then she had to extend her chakra senses to make sure she really was alone. Shishou was a sneaky bastard and he always seemed to be there precisely when she didn't want him to be. Luckily, she really did seem to be alone.

She roughly guessed by how long she'd been out that it must have been about seven in the morning when she made her way home to find that her two housemates had already left to workout. There was a note on the table from Karin about dinner, with a jotted addition from Anko informing/begging for dinner as well that made her laugh.

"When did I become the mom figure?" Aiko looked around the empty house, a bit baffled by just how much her life had changed. She had a sudden bout of homesickness- it was really more like 'NarutoSickness', really. Being separated from him was very strange. She hadn't realized that he had become an emotional crutch for her to the extent that she would constantly miss him or wonder what he might have thought about something.

She shook the strange thoughts away, taking a shower and dressing plainly again- in green this time, slightly influenced by her almost-partners in her workout that morning. Without blowdrying it, she tugged her hair back into a messy bun and left the house in search of a speedy breakfast. By that point she was ravenous, and it was hard to want to go through the motions of making her own food.

The streets were bustling at that time, and she had to wait a few minutes for a table and a few minutes more after she'd been seated for the same girl who'd helped her at the festival to come and take her order. "How did that end, by the way?" she asked absentmindedly after they'd mutually confirmed that the other had a good night after they'd parted.

She gave a laugh like a bell, clear and beautiful. "How does it ever end?"

Aiko snorted. "I suppose I thought Maito-san would be too preoccupied." She'd assumed he was busy making nice with the important people, since she didn't see him with Lee all night.

"Too-preoccupied to challenge half the village to fisticuffs, ikebana, and making sparkly paper lanterns to compete for paper flowers?" She raised an eyebrow neatly. "He destroyed the competition again, I think he had a hundred something this year. He's never too preoccupied for that. I think he lives for this festival."

"When you put it that way…"

The food was both speedy and excellent. After she'd wolfed most of it down, Aiko pushed away her bowl of fruit and pulled out the book she was currently working on. She was constantly surprised by her own memory for long-ago read literature (or never read, in one sense of the word). It seemed that the more of it she wrote, the more she remembered. She had a book where she was currently transcribing what she remembered of Shakespearian poetry, but this book was an altogether more frivolous collection of movies written as books. It was actually a more creative a project than re-writing books in some ways, since she had to abandon the visual aspects of the film (aside from occasional sketches in the pages) in favor of introspection and other narrative strategies.

Besides, translation was actually a form of art as well, and she wasn't dumb enough to leave large examples of English script around. For one thing she couldn't possibly explain it, and secondly it wouldn't be useful as code between her and Naruto if there were enough examples for someone like Shikamaru to figure out the language on their own. (and someone would be able to. There was always someone smarter than you, no matter how clever you thought you were. Unless you were Kakashi-shishou, in which case you were perfect, but that was beside the point.)

Chihero was hugging her clothes outside the bathhouse, having just broken through the spell that stole her name when someone tapped on her shoulder and Aiko put down her pencil to glance up at Ino. "Hey, girl," she greeted absently. "You look nice this morning."

She looked like she always did, actually, but it was best to lie to Ino. Even Ino's bad days were still pretty anyways, so it didn't much matter.

"And you look tired," Ino replied primly, giving her a one-armed hug around the shoulders and peering nosily down at the book.
That was probably true.

"What are you writing?"

Aiko fidgeted uncomfortably, fighting the urge to rudely shut the book. "Nothing important." It just felt strange to have someone else reading what she wrote, even if it wasn't totally her intellectual property. It was like she would be sharing far too much of herself.

The blonde rolled her eyes and snatched the book, flipping to the front page to see the illustrated title page. She squinted at it for a second before thumbing through the pages rapidly. "I didn't know you had any artistic ability. Those pictures are really pretty."

'They should be. I had years to just practice sketching while Iruka was lecturing in the Academy.'

"Thank you," she said instead of the more honest but less admirable sentiment in her head. "Can I have it back now? I feel really anxious watching you read it."

Ino shot her a look that probed far too much for her comfort, and she suddenly remembered just how sharp the other girl was. "Here." She sat down across from Aiko and stole a sip out of her ice water, wiping her hand on a napkin with a grimace at the condensation. "Is that what you used to do all the time when we were little- write and draw? I sort of assumed it was something academic and not stories." Unspoken was the, 'I misjudged you and am now re-evaluating' that crossed Ino's eyes.
She took a moment to curse the Yamanaka for teaching their children clinical psychology (even if it was nowhere up to her standards).

"Yes. I write a lot, actually."

Ino pursed her lips. "Hmm. Would it bother you to lend me a couple if you didn't have to watch me read them?"
Aiko rolled her eyes. "It's not that interesting, but sure. Not that one though, it's nowhere near done." My neighbor Totoro, on the other hand, she had recently finished. That might appeal to Ino. "If you want, we could go to my house and you could pick out a couple."

"How many do you have?" Ino asked nonchalantly, popping a bit of melon in her mouth from Aiko's forgotten bowl. She nearly choked on it when she got her answer- an approximation, since Aiko didn't really keep track. "For real? Girl, when do you have that kind of time?"

Aiko debated the wisdom of telling Ino that she hardly slept and anyways, that when all one had to do was work out maybe six to eight hours and eat a few times a day there were hours and hours left available for writing, but merely shrugged instead.

Ino goggled at the shelves that lined Aiko's bedroom, but placidly enough took the books Aiko handed her and a few more with pretty covers. It wasn't the best way to judge books, but she just shrugged. It didn't really matter…. Although Ino would be the first person to ever read anything she'd written, actually. She had told some of the stories to Naruto when they were little, but he'd never wanted to read them. He'd never really become fond of it, and Aiko actually suspected he had undiagnosed dyslexia.
"I'll return them when I'm done," Ino informed easily while she shoved her feet back into her sandals at the door. "This is actually great, I'm working in the shop all week and I needed something to read."

Aiko furrowed her brow awkwardly. "You're welcome, I think?"

"That's correct. Thank me, your gorgeous rival." Ino lifted her chin up and posed haughtily, one hand flicking out her long, sleek hair with a 'schwick' sound and sending it fanning behind her.

She snorted rudely. "Not much of a rival, Ino." The other girl had joked about fighting for the top kunoichi spot way back when, but after Aiko had graduated early she'd thought that was over. You couldn't have a rival who was just starting their shinobi career, could you? Then she was arrested by blue eyes when the other girl turned back to her.

"Don't dismiss me," Ino snapped. "I'm a damn good kunoichi too." She tossed her hair over a shoulder. "You owe me a workout, you know. We never started back up after you cancelled to work with the crazy snake lady."

That was fair enough, so they set a time to meet up and parted ways.

________________________________________
Kankuro actually put down the tiny screwdriver he'd been using to remove a spring lever that needed maintenance. He opened his mouth and tried to say something a few times, eventually closing his eyes and pushing his puppet away so he could rest his elbows on his workspace. He deposited his face in his hands and took a long moment to decide what part of the ridiculous statement Temari had just made deserved a more immediate reply.

Things had been more peaceful without his siblings. He almost regretted that they'd come back so soon. He'd gotten so much work done uninterrupted and slept much better when there was no chance of waking up to see light reflecting off Gaara's unblinking eyes (the kid was still fucking creepy sometimes even now that he was trying to be all touchy-feely).

He just couldn't make a decision on his reply. It all sounded ridiculous. But did the part of her response to the politely disinterested 'How was Konoha' that was 'I'm nominating Gaara for Kazekage', deserve a speedier response than the continuation 'he may have a girlfriend now, by the way'? He knew he probably should respond to the bit about being allies with Konoha now, but… but...

"How does that even work?" He pushed back his hood and fisted a hand in his hair, tilting his head to look up at her smug little grin. She always liked blindsiding him. "Gaara? Girl? Gaara?" He made an inarticulate sound of frustration from the back of his throat.

Temari gave a smoothly controlled shrug. "Honestly, I'm a little confused too. I was exaggerating a bit. She flirts with him and he seems to want to spend time with her to the point of agreeing to stay for their festival. But I don't think he actually has a sense of romantic interest yet."

That was marginally less terrifying. Gaara was scary enough without excess hormones making him moody and horny. Please god no, not for a few more years. Maybe sometime in the future he'd be brave enough to tease Gaara about it, but not now. So he changed the subject. "So… Kazekage, huh." His voice was flat. "Why."

His sister leapt straight up and took a perch on the edge of the tall wooden workspace that lined the room (and he took a moment to marvel at just how birdlike she was) and gave him one of her sharp little smiles. "He wants to, of course. And how many S-class shinobi do we really have? If we're honest, we only have one candidate. The Council is just wasting time and resources."

The Council of elders was jockeying for power like a bunch of whiny children, nominating themselves and relatives. It was all rather pathetic.

Gaara didn't want to rule by fear. He wanted to become Kazekage because people saw him and trusted him to protect them, not because they were too frightened to say no. But Temari rather thought that he was going to have to gain their trust as Kazekage instead of before, because the time to act was now. Sand had already been leaderless for months. But by sending her to make negotiations, they had inadvertently empowered Temari far too much if they wanted to control the field. They had made her responsible for the alliance that could save their skins and acknowledged her as the most qualified to make decisions about Sand's future.

She was going to strangle them with the loose leash they'd given her.

That wasn't the only trick up Temari's sleeve, actually. Gaara wouldn't like it, but if things looked to be going badly she was going to clobber the Elders with the full force of the borrowed clout she had from Tsunade. It would reek of Leaf trying to put a puppet government in place in Sand, but that impression could be rectified eventually. Temari was persuasive.
She'd had to be to get that damn Senju woman to take her side, actually. At first, the older woman had seemed mildly amused by her impudence and made the point that she had no place in Sand's politics. Temari knew where she was coming from—if Tsunade endorsed Gaara and another candidate became Kazekage, that could severely damage their relations.

On the other hand, as she made clear, if she helped put Gaara in power then she could be sure that their alliance would be nigh unbreakable. She hadn't wanted to admit what a strong hold Konoha had over her brother, but the Hokage probably knew all about whatever world-altering charisma Uzumaki Naruto had used on her hapless brother. She'd allowed him in the village, so she must have.

It had been a game of convincing her that there was much more for Leaf to gain than to lose in the venture with little risk. There were few who were willing to stand up to Gaara. He apparently wasn't smashing people who displeased him any longer, so she was going to have to settle for reasoning with them. (Inconvenient, that he'd given it up just when she needed it). Temari didn't like that idea much, but she liked it much better when she had financial and other backing from one of the most powerful villages in the continent.

________________________________________

Naruto pouted up at the ceiling of the hotel room, bored beyond belief. He'd been forbidden to train any further that day on what he'd been working on. The old man didn't want him using destructive jutsu unsupervised.

On one hand, Naruto recognized the logical value of that order. On the other hand, his teacher was a big dumb pervert with a big dumb face. Also he was dumb. Had Naruto mentioned that? "I bet he'd pay more attention to me if I were a pretty girl," Naruto muttered without really thinking about just how terrible and traumatizing that attention would be. And then he had an idea both terrible and brilliant.

He had been told to practice with his solid shadow clones, after all. Perhaps he could combine that directive with his prankalicious thought about a girlie alter-ego.

Naruto bounced nearly a foot in the air as he escaped the bed, scurrying to the full-length mirror and examining his reflection. He'd apply a standard henge first to figure out what he wanted to look like, and then figure out how to make a solid clone shell over it. He could make an actual clone, but that seemed less fun that doing it himself.

He studied his features, noting the too-sharp teeth, jaw that was just starting to turn square, and how his shoulders were getting to be too broad to be girlish. Hmm. This would need some thinking.

"If I were a girl, what would I look like?"

Then he snorted. That was a stupid question. He already had a model, no thinking required. He transformed into his sister in one of her weirdly boring outfits. (She had like a thousand of them, but they were all almost the same. He didn't get the point.) Now he was a pretty girl, but far too young even for the pervert. He scrunched up his nose in thought, remembering how those girls in the movie posters always looked. Aiko already had really long legs, but…. Poof. They became even longer, and curvier. But they looked strange coming out of her hips, so… poof. He swiveled, modeling and checking other angles.

"My ass is fantastic," Naruto muttered with some satisfaction. Or was it Aiko's ass? Whatever. He put both hands on his hips and straightened his torso exaggeratedly, eying the slight bumps of a precocious 13 year old. "Too flat to interest the pervert." He had to consciously work on not blushing at that thought. It was weird critically analyzing his sister's body. Maybe he should have used another girl as a base, but he'd started off by thinking he was going to make a girl version of himself, not a sexy version of like, Ino or something. His mind supplied what that might looked like. Then he really did blush and felt a little strange.

'Maybe it's better if it's my sister after all,' he flushed, going back to his project. Some experimental bouncing demonstrated that what he'd given himself for a chest was the wrong texture completely, so he poofed it away and tried again, applying the henge three more times until he was satisfied with the results. His observations had indicated that bouncing was important, though Naruto wasn't exactly certain why.

Now the face looked too young for the body, though. He scrunched up Aiko's nose in thought (it was straight and small, much like his) and elongated her face slightly, flattening the last hints of baby fat in her cheeks. That was a step in the right direction, so he exaggerated her cheekbones and widened her eyes slightly for extra cuteness. "I'm awesome!" He gave himself a thumbs-up, and then immediately cringed at both how the boyish posture looked with this body and how masculine the hands still were. He'd forgotten about that. He'd have to fix both of those things.

Of course, now the outfit was pulling in weird ways and messing with the total effect…

When Jiraiya returned to his hotel room, he expected to find his blonde apprentice glaring at him with all the ferocity of a wronged kitten. (It was almost worth teasing the kid to see him puff out his cheeks and pout. Minato had done that too). He was conflicted on what he found instead. Should he wonder where the boy was? Had he wandered into the wrong hotel room? And who got ready for bed at nine at night, anyway?

He collapsed against the doorframe, nose slowly leaking blood as the very nude, very fit, unnaturally pretty redhead in the room just dropping her silk robe gave a girly squeal and moved to cover herself with her hands. It was not very successful.

"W…would you pay attention to me?" She blinked up at him prettily and blushed pink, and all of the available blood for thinking departed, ending all those stupid thought about how strange the situation was. He grinned stupidly. Wow, those were some intense eyes. He was a sucker for pretty eyes, although most wouldn't guess it.

"Whatever you want, baby."

She bounced. And then so did her chest for a few precious seconds later. She clasped delicate, pretty hands in front of it, blocking a very important view. It took him a moment to register the oddity of what she said next, and the slightly lower tone in which it was said.

"I thought so, you old pervert."

And suddenly the pretty girl was gone and his apprentice was there laughing at him and pointing and saying something about I knew you would pay attention to me if I were a pretty girl and Jiraiya had to stop for a moment because his brain was crying 'Oh god, I just got an erection from a 13 year old boy' and was answered by the equally horrifying defensive 'he's almost fourteen' but other parts of him were wondering where the hell he could find a girl like that, hopefully now, please.

But he couldn't let the kid think he'd been disturbed, or else this would get used against him again. That he could not abide. Jiraiya valiantly rallied his senses to put on the super pervert act again (Well. Sometimes it was an act).

That was about when he absorbed the babble that Naruto had based the solid transformation off of his sister and Jiraiya had to stumble to the bathroom to throw up. That might put him off onsen watching for a whole week.

He banged his head against the bathroom wall, ignoring whatever questions his apprentice was asking. He was scum. He was lower than scum. He was attracted to his godson pretending to be his goddaughter. Oh god. Oh god.

He threw up again.

Chapter Text

A lesser man would have been panicking. As it was, Yakushi Kabuto would have preferred a less stressful situation, but he was able to keep any traces of unease hidden. This had not gone as expected at all.

His message to Sasori, given using the same techniques that the puppet master thought meant Kabuto was under his control, had been sent as usual. The missive he'd received in place had requested a meeting in person, but that wasn't so unusual that he had been alarmed. He was certain that he would bluff his way through and acquire the backing he needed to run his fledgling village.

He was now alarmed.

"And who, pray tell, are you?" Kabuto bluffed calmness that he did not feel. He was a formidable foe himself, but it was easy enough to see that the masked man who had come to meet him in lieu of Sasori was out of Kabuto's league entirely.

"That's not important," rumbled out from behind a swirled mask. The effect was disorienting and Kabuto had to suppress a shudder and the desire to make a tactical retreat. How had he missed a large player like this? What had happened to Sasori- was he dead, or had the message been intercepted at the start?

"What is important, Yakushi Kabuto, is that you work for me now." The mask came down, and the world turned red.

When Kabuto returned to the Sound hideout in Grass, he impassively countermanded his earlier orders about patrolling the borders and collecting taxes (and new medical subjects from those who declined to pay taxes) from their new citizens. Tayuya scoffed at his wishy-washy behavior, but didn't care much what the little prick did. She'd rather have a real fight than babysit whinging babies anyway.

Takigakure, huh? She didn't know shit about it other than that it was one of the minor villages, but that was fine. She was good at killing strangers.

Good at killing people she knew, too. She let a smirk slip onto her face as she jerkily bowed to her 'kage' and left the room. What he didn't know would definitely hurt him.

________________________________________

"Ready?"

Sasuke might have rolled his eyes in another situation. Of course he was ready. He was only watching the surgery. He didn't quite understand why Tsunade and Shizune thought it was such a major step—he would be providing the bulk of the medical chakra that Shizune actually manipulated for this surgery. She didn't need the help, of course. It was the only way to introduce how it really felt to manipulate internal organs of living beings without the sink-or-swim method, which tended to end up in a lot of dead patients and unconfident surgeons (and that was not done in Konoha anymore, unlike in pretty much every other shinobi village).

The surgery went off without a single hiccup, as he had completely expected. Shizune-senpai was a professional, and it was not an especially complicated task. Medical mask and gloves discarded, he abandoned his senpai and went back to the administration tower to report the results back to Tsunade after Shizune had filed the paperwork for the poor overworked hospital director himself. ("I'm too old for this shit," he'd muttered rather rebelliously. Shizune had given a nervous laugh and carefully not mentioned that it had been her idea to put the hospital director on the advisory council).

The place was bustling, much more so than Sasuke would have expected for the afternoon. He turned right back around and went to go get precious caffeine. Few people could tolerate a shit storm like that without something to soothe their nerves, and he knew the secretary was on holiday with her family. Tsunade would be on her last nerve, if not actually punching holes in walls. Sasuke hated putting up drywall. This was just easier. Spotting Ibiki and two Chuunin he knew worked in codes waiting in the lobby when he returned gave him a clue as to what was going on, but it wasn't until he'd managed to hand Tsunade a gigantic latte that he got any sense at to this urgency of the situation at all.

"Have I ever told you that you're my best apprentice?" She ignored the red-faced man who had been babbling about something and took a long drink. "Ah. That hits the spot. You can go now." Tsunade waved dismissively, getting out of her chair and all but shoving him out of her office so that she could leave as well. "You coming?"

Sasuke followed, slightly amused and also slightly annoyed at being treated like a dog. Sit, stay, follow, re-connect metatarsals, and then roll over, why don't you? Nonetheless, he remained silent as the Hokage strode purposefully down to the mission office and put her hands on her hips. "All of you, go home for the day. I am. I will be taking this new information into consideration and you can expect new orders tomorrow. Now get the hell out."

They scattered obediently. Sasuke smirked. At least it wasn't just him.

"Get Shizune and meet me at my house, would you?" Tsunade tossed over her shoulder. "We'll call this a test and see if anything I've taught you got through that thick head of yours."

"Whatever you say, hag," he muttered slightly below what his mentor could understand. Hopefully. While she whipped around to glare at him suspiciously, he turned around and strode back down the hallway to an open window. Shizune was doubtlessly still in her office at the hospital with those damn toxicology reports.

When they were all gathered in Tsunade's living room, Sasuke finally allowed himself to feel curiosity about the situation. Whatever it was must be bad—Tsunade had dug out a pint of ice cream for each of them and gravely handed out spoons at the door.

He also felt a little superior—he would never eat on the couches in his own home. Granted, Tsunade had strange tastes and decidedly non-traditional aesthetic in her home. Perhaps the teal couches and the enormous yellow rug they all sat on would be easier to launder than his tatami mats.

"Are you going to explain, or do we have to ask?" Shizune scraped her spoon around in search of fudge and chocolate bits, wiggling slightly to keep the tub away from Tonton's snuffling nose.

Tsunade leaned back onto the side of her couch, propping her bare toes up on the other side and shrugging languidly. "Funny thing. Turns out the political shithole of Mist is straightening up."

Sasuke furrowed his brow. 'What?' He knew that they had theorized that their Mizukage was dead- someone named Yagura- but his disappearance had hardly been the event that threw Mist into chaos. Arguably, disappearing was the best thing that lunatic had done for his country.

"Is there a new Mizukage, then?" Shizune queried, actually looking interested. "I'm afraid I don't know of many big names left in the village."

"One Terumi Mei sends us an invitation to meet and greet, one Kage to another," Tsunade said dryly. "In other words, she wants us to court her for favor and alliance. It's almost certainly not in our favor to do so, of course. Mist is going to be a mess for a long time—something like half their forces deserted or went rouge, and she's probably maintaining order through force."
"But if you snub her now…" Sasuke trailed off, implication obvious. Tsunade sneered.

"Got it in one. Good thing I got rid of the old coots when I did, they'd be pushing to insure that I stay in the village and that this meeting falls through. Not that they wouldn't have a point."

"It would be awfully dangerous," Shizune mused. "So much could go wrong. You can't go, you can't snub her, and you can't afford to get caught cleaning up her mess."

"But if we help her now," Sasuke interjected lazily, "we could have an alliance of three out of the five major villages. We are never going to mend the rift with Rock and Lightning."

Those wounds were too fresh, on both sides, and both were still highly militant. Konoha had a tentative alliance with other villages like Grass, for example, but there was an enormous difference between the five major villages and even the respectably mid-tiered ones like Grass. At the moment, Rock and Lightning were probably the two most stable villages, and had a long-standing alliance. If they decided that now was an excellent time for war, no one or two villages could stand against them.
Tsunade looked amused, popping a cleanly-licked spoon out of her mouth and angling a scolding look at his own untouched portion. Sasuke grimaced down at his melting ice cream and reluctantly put a spoonful in his mouth. It was a bit undignified, but he really did like green tea ice cream. His mentor nodded in approval.

"Good point, Sasuke-chan. And that's why I'm sending you and Shizune to meet with her and make nice. It's the next best thing to going myself- entrusting her with both my apprentices is a huge show of trust." Then she rolled her eyes. "But I don't trust her at all, of course, which is why I'm also sending your scruffy ex-sensei."

Shizune groaned.

Surprised, Sasuke raised an eyebrow at her. 'What's so wrong with Kakashi-sensei?'

Then he realized that was the wrong question. Many things were wrong with Kakashi, of course. He amended the thought.
'What specific problem would Shizune have with him?'

She flushed, waving her free hand frantically and inadvertently let Tonton get his face into her treat. "It's nothing! Really. But Tsunade-sama, do you really think that just Hatake-san will be enough?"

"I'm not sending your boytoy, if that's what you're asking," she taunted with a cruel little smile. Sasuke had no idea what she was alluding to, but it didn't matter. Shizune actually looked relieved, so it was probably a bad joke.

"Who will be filling out the team, then?"

Tsunade snorted ungracefully. "Well, Hatake's brat apprentice for one. I'd need a goddamn crow-bar and chakra proof cell to stop that from happening. And then probably one of his old teammates from ANBU."

"That's it?" That was a strange configuration. Either Shizune and Sasuke were diplomats or they were part of the team—if they were solely diplomats, Tsunade should send a four man team with them. If they were part of the team, then it would just be Kakashi and Aiko.

Tsunade cracked her neck. "That's all I have to add, in a way. Danzo stopped by to helpfully offer a suggestion to fill the last space." The sarcasm was palpable. She shrugged. "I'd be disturbed that he was the only one who knew what I would decide to do so quickly, but he has never been stupid. Many things, but not stupid." She eyed Sasuke pointedly. "This will almost certainly be one of his private ANBU. They'd fill out the combat requirements nicely, if I know Danzo at all, but they will also be invaluable for our purposes."

Sasuke nodded ever so slightly. It made sense. He was going to either gather information from this person or try to subvert them.

Then he frowned. "Aren't I probably the least qualified person in the village to emotionally manipulate this person?" He asked a bit dryly, ignoring Shizune's muttered 'Not so, there's always Hatake'. Tsunade actually burst out laughing, snatching up Tonton when he wandered too close and petting his belly. He snuffled happily, completely unaware of the fate of a country being decided above him. It must be nice to be a pig.

"You've never met one of these Root operatives before, have you? There's a reason Danzo keeps them out of the normal forces—whatever the hell he does to them makes it very hard for them to blend in." She shrugged. "Even you aren't that obtuse. If this teammate is a Root operative, you'll know it. Besides, you'll have your nosy little girlfriend to help you make nice. I'm starting to think that there's a hidden Uzumaki bloodline where their complete lack of self-preservation and crippling social retardation somehow combines to form reality warping charisma."

There was probably an argument to be made against that, but for the life of him Sasuke didn't know how to go about defending his teammates or even if he wanted to. He'd had to bang his head against the wall out of frustration when he heard that Aiko had apparently befriended the Suna jinchuuriki who had genuinely tried to kill her not so long ago. Sasuke understood that she might have sympathy for his situation (now that he'd finally been told about Naruto's condition) but that didn't have to extend to actually allowing the creep to spend time around her. Her nonchalance about the affair was shocking.

It was downright unnerving, bordering on a hint that she had a frightening predisposition to forgive abusers. He was going to keep an eye on her, since she wasn't willing to do it herself. Kakashi was probably similarly alarmed, if he'd managed to lift his head from a book long enough to hear about that idiotic decision and parse through the nuances of human interaction.

"Now, as for what I want you two to be willing to accept and negotiate with. First of all, you can thank Hatake for having the presence of mind to seal up Zabuza's sword and bring it back after you brats killed him, because that'll make an acceptable good faith offering. It doesn't do us a damn bit of good without knowing how to use it, but it's an important part of Mist's cultural heritage. In other words, they'll want it back even if they don't have anyone who can use it."

Shizune snorted rudely. "It's also a way to shove in their face that one of our genin teams killed their strongest missing nin." She gave Tsunade an unimpressed look. "Don't you think that sending three out of the five members of that group will be a bit obvious?"

"I like to make my points very clearly," Tsunade responded primly. "I don't know this Terumi woman well at all. She could be a total incompetent."

________________________________________

"Hello. I am called Sai. Please take care of me." Dark hair slipped over his face when he gave a small bow to the group eying him for the first time. Most of the office was thoroughly unimpressed, but not all.

'Hot damn,' Aiko thought. 'Why are all the men I know ridiculously good-looking? This isn't even funny anymore.'

Really, it wasn't. It was easy on her eyes, though. And Sai was slightly older than her physical age- just old enough that she didn't feel like a total creep for checking him out. (She knew Sasuke was beautiful, but hell if he didn't look like a child to her. Maybe in a couple of years she would be willing to tap that, but right now Yamato was her best eye candy).

Sasuke grunted, and for one horrid moment she thought he had spontaneously developed telepathy and heard her unprofessional thoughts. Luckily, he seemed to be ignorant so far. She had carefully kept any hints of the perverted side that Yamato was now far too familiar with for his comfort and that Kakashi-shishou was amused by from Sasuke. That was mostly because she had the benefit of knowing that appearing to have a romantic interest in him was the fastest way to drive Sasuke off. If she wanted him to respect her, she had to be professional.

She'd somehow managed to trick him into respecting her just a little bit, and she wasn't about to ruin it now.

That was another reason this mission was going to be a total drag, she knew. Her displeased thoughts didn't cross her face during the mission briefing and she somehow managed to pay attention to what little she was allowed to know. (Mist? Why the hell were they going on a diplomatic mission with Mist? She thought that they were isolationist and universally hostile). But the situation was still a total bummer. Yamato had been included on the team for some stupid reason, and he was going to think that she had either given up on taunting him or (much worse) actually figure out that Sasuke and Kakashi-shishou were good shields against her perversion. (She definitely curbed her enthusiasm around shishou. He didn't seem ready to see her as an adult yet, and probably with good reason. Her body was thirteen, after all.)

The worst part was that she didn't even dislike Yamato. He was talented, handsome, and seemed to have an easy going personality… when he wasn't paying attention to her. She was almost a little hurt that he seemed to single her out as an object of dislike. She hadn't done a damn thing to him.

Despite her lack of personal enmity for the guy, she couldn't let his pointed silences and little snipes at her slide. It was probably a character flaw, but she always had to have the last word. Most people didn't challenge her (people just sort of let her do whatever she wanted, with the exception of the few people she deferred to without question or attitude), and so this was disconcerting. He didn't fit in her hierarchical understanding of relationships.

'Sai might, though,' she mused. That was going to be a strange fit. They could be equal comrades with differing specializations who deferred to the other when appropriate, perhaps? He didn't seem like he would be overly aggressive, unless one counted the insulting names that had been his trademark in canon. Her personal theory was that those things stemmed from his lack of socialization and not an actual cruel personality, so she wasn't going to let them bother her if they happened.

The answer to the question of nicknames was answered soon after they left the building, accompanied by Shizune. Kakashi-shishou had left in a flicker of light, but the others were all there when Sai turned a painfully fake smile on the rest of them and tilted his head like a bird. "I have read that it is considered friendly to give nicknames to companions based upon their notable attributes."

Sasuke rolled his eyes, the question, 'Is this guy for real' written all over his features.

Sai was socially awkward, not blind. His eyes narrowed imperceptibly at the snub, and then his grin widened to bare perfectly white teeth. "I will call you Dickless."

'What,' Sasuke thought flatly. 'What.' That didn't even compute. Why… who would say such a thing, in public or otherwise? This mission was doomed to failure, because Sasuke was going to kill the moron and hide the body in a lake as soon as they were out of Konoha. This could not stand.

Aiko actually choked. Apparently that nickname had more to do with Sai than Naruto. Or maybe there was a commonality between the two boys that they would doubtlessly not fess up to.

He turned that unnerving gaze on her while Sasuke whitened to an unhealthy shade and became dangerously still with rage, like a cat about to pounce. "And you…" he tilted his head the other way, as if to take her in. She felt Yamato practically begin vibrating with anticipation, clearly interested in the conversation. "I think that you will be washboard. You're rather flat, aren't you."

'Okay, maybe he is testing the waters by intentionally being insulting,' she acknowledged in her head. 'Either that or he's using some logic I don't yet see to assign names.' She was far from flat-chested, especially for an athlete. 'Maybe that means Sasuke is hung like a horse.'

Alas, speculations were useless at the moment, and there would be no opportunities for field investigation.

Her companions seemed to agree that the nickname was inappropriate. Sasuke looked like he wanted to attack Sai, and she might have been worried if he'd already possessed Tsunade's super strength. On the other hand, Yamato looked highly amused at what he probably perceived to be a situation that would embarrass her. Shizune was wheezing with laughter.

Canon had made clear that getting angry at Sai would solve nothing- either he simply didn't understand what he had done wrong or he intentionally pushed back against aggression. So telling him to fuck off was right out. She wasn't even that insulted, really. She knew she wasn't flat, and if she had been, it wouldn't have mattered anyways. Her job wasn't to be pretty, it was to be good at killing people. And she was.

So she took it in stride, looking down pointedly and cupping herself with both hands. "I'm not that flat," she said mildly, giving a generous squeeze. If she'd seen Sasuke's expression at that moment, she might not have continued. "I'm almost a C." She wanted to see Yamato's face –was he smug now, huh?!- but had to look casually back at Sai. "What about him?" She jerked her head towards Yamato.

Sai turned his head to the suddenly still man. "I thought that was the kunoichi of the team," he said mildly.

"An honest mistake," Aiko agreed, despite the fact that Yamato was a hunk of manly man. Said manly man looked a bit stricken. Oh god, she was going to love having this kid around. She gave him a genuinely amused smile. "Well, when you think of one, tell us. I'm sure I'll enjoy it. You have a knack."

He seemed pleased. Perhaps he wasn't intentionally provoking them after all.

'It's just me she hates,' Yamato realized numbly. He felt oddly miffed. That was unfair—this boy had been far ruder than he had. Was she really going to hold a few minutes of dismissal the first time they'd met against him forever? He'd been certain that Aiko was going to join the Uchiha boy in murdering their new teammate and forget about him altogether.

Was this what it was like to have someone you disliked on a personal level? Yamato had never had an enemy like that before.
He didn't like it much.

________________________________________

"Okay gaki," Jiraiya half-pouted. He did feel a little guilty that his apprentice thought he was being neglected so much that he invented a new technique to impress him. So it was time to teach him something really cool. He'd had to pay more attention to what was going on in that last village than his apprentice—something was very wrong among his contacts. The man he had come to meet- the one who had been sending him dull, regular reports for the last few years- had apparently been dead for half a year. Yes. Something was very wrong, and it had been a bad place to bring his nearly defenseless apprentice.
At least it was a nice day for travel. The sky was clear and the sun beating down cheerfully in a way that could have convinced him he was still within Fire Country if he didn't know better.

He stiffened, bringing his hands up and clapping, tapping his wooden geta on the cobblestone surface of the road that hadn't quite yet faded into the dirt that characterized country roads. "The great Jiraiya, the gallant toad sage, will be teaching you his specialty, starting today!" He grinned down at his apprentice.

Naruto looked spectacularly unimpressed. "You already taught me toad summoning, and I don't want to learn how to be a gigantic pervert and get beat up outside hot springs."

'Is that all the kid thinks of me?'

Jiraiya tabled that troubling thought and moved on to pretending to be hurt. "Come on kid, do you really think that summoning is all I can do? I'm internationally renowned because I am a seal master, a rare and difficult specialty."
"What, like the thing the creepy guy put on Sasuke with his hickey of doom?"

That made no sense, so Jiraiya decided to ignore it. That was his general policy whenever his apprentice started to say things that were arranged in perfectly good sentences but still incomprehensible.

"Sealing is an incredibly versatile art," he boasted, posed heroically with his fists on his hips and hair ruffling dramatically in a wind that did not exist. A couple of young girls traveling down the same road passed them, giving Jiraiya strange looks. They were clearly making an effort not to catch attention and edging along the other side of the path. Naruto shrugged helplessly and tried to apologize with his eyes.

'He's not paying attention,' Jiraiya noted. 'I'd better get louder.' He wasn't going to put up with the sheer hypocrisy of his obnoxious apprentice being embarrassed by him. Jiraiya broke social convention because he liked to. Naruto barreled through propriety with all the elegance of a drunken cow.

"Behold!" He whipped out a prepared seal and activated it with chakra. It fizzled and sparked with electricity, charring the ground where it landed. "Fuinjutsu can be used to fundamentally alter the nature of laws of dimension and space, to do things like store chakra, solid materials, bend space, or even time! You can use seals to make explosives, contracts with summon clans, spy, detect intruders, or even utilize powerful attacks of other chakra natures!"

"Big deal, my sister can do that stuff." Naruto turned his nose up. "Boring! I want something cool, like maybe a sword that channels chakra like that Ino's sensei has."

Jiraiya was genuinely insulted. He was far cooler than Sarutobi Asuma, that diapered brat. And besides, "Your sister can't have mastered fuinjutsu. It takes years!"

Naruto snorted. "Maybe for you. She had to learn it for the Chuunin exams."

"That's not a Chuunin skill."

The blonde gave him a 'Are you stupid' look, which Jiraiya resented more than just a bit. "Not her exams, mine. She was working with Anko on the second exam. She made the summoning scrolls that brought Chuunin to meet teams that opened them at the tower."

Jiraiya face-palmed. 'Minato, you put the Kyuubi in the wrong kid,' he groused. 'One of them has prodigal sealing talent, and it's the wrong one. What is Sarutobi-sensei thinking? I can understand testing her to see if she had any of her parents' ability, but why wouldn't he tell me so I could direct it?'

It had to have been a test. No one would honestly expect a Chuunin to master an entirely new skill set like that in a few months at absolute most. Anko wouldn't actually be a bad supervisor for that. Sarutobi sensei had taught all three of his students advanced sealing. Even though Jiraiya was the only one who had gone a conventional route with it, being apprenticed to Orochimaru would have exposed the girl to plenty of fuinjutsu.

He had been a sealing prodigy himself once he got past the initial barriers of learning a new language, of course, but fuinjutsu ran in Uzumaki veins as much as blood did. He'd met a few in his time, and they were positively uncanny, often understanding and executing concepts they hadn't been taught and couldn't verbalize. Naruto had a bit of that quality himself, but it seemed to be directed to understanding jutsu instead. Maybe he had more of Minato in him than Kushina in that regard—Minato had pushed himself to become a sealing expert precisely because he found it difficult and intellectually engaging, not because it was intuitive. He and his red-haired wife had been a fearsome duo indeed with their combined abilities and wildly varying approaches. If they'd lived, they would have revolutionized everything. He was sure of it.

But that ship had sailed, and this was what he was left with. Jiraiya would do his best to pound some introductory level fuinjutsu concepts into Naruto's head to see if it would spark intellectual curiosity. If not… well.

Jiraiya heaved a sigh.

He'd just have to teach the brat to hit things really hard. Depressing.

Chapter Text

"This is a bad idea," Chojuro muttered. "I don't like having high-level foreigners in the village when tensions are so high. He fidgeted, shoulders drawn in like he wanted to sink into himself.

Ao gave him a disgusted look. "Oh, man up already."

"Ao, don't be cruel, and stop your gender policing. It's very unattractive." The Mizukage pouted at her bodyguards. "Chojuro, don't you trust my judgment?" He went scarlet and began sputtering as if to deny that. "Everything will be fine," she soothed, ignoring his overreaction. "Konoha is our best bet for fixing our little problem." She closed her eyes and leaned languidly against her palm. "Whether they give us help as allies or we take it by force, the first step is gathering information. And how better than to have them readily give it to us?"

Chojuru still didn't like this idea, but he said nothing else. It was undeniable that something had to be done about the three-tailed beast that had been sealed in Yagura. The revelation that he had been controlled was slightly reassuring—it meant that the violence and insanity of the 'Bloody Mist' years had not entirely been the influence of the beast that was one of their best weapons. They could ill afford to lose it, even if its container had to go.

There was also no way around the fact that they had no one capable or willing to perform the seal to make a jinchuuriki for them. They had personnel who worked with seals, yes, but nothing of that caliber. It was possible that they could cobble together a seal that would work after a few months of scrabbling to make something work before the container the beast was held in failed.

It was also entirely possible and rather likely that they would fail and the beast would be released wherever they tried to seal it, angry after years of imprisonment and with its full power available. The casualties might be even worse if the amateur seal workers they had were incorrect about how long the beast could be contained in an inanimate object and it was released in the village.

Most of the other major villages had sealing 'experts', but even the best of Sand and Rock could not compare to Konoha's sealing experts. The only group that could possibly best Konoha's Jiraiya were the defunct Uzumaki clan… who, according to a rather recent bounty, were not quite so defunct after all.

"Those sneaky bastards were hoarding them all along," Mei had breathed out with an air of resigned amusement and utter relief at what seemed to be the solution to one of their largest problems, other than that fucking rebel faction that wouldn't give up and die already. If they could get a hold of an Uzumaki, who had reputably been sealing experts to the last man, woman, and child, then they could easily re-establish one of their most powerful assets and turn their attention to other problems. It wasn't as shocking in retrospect—they had one in the last war, and Konoha had always been closest to Uzu.
Without getting hold of a seal master, they would be better off throwing the container with the beast into an ocean and hoping no one else managed to take advantage of the resource.

If they were allies with Konoha, they could negotiate the sealing as part of their conditions for a mutual protection pact. It could benefit them as well to have stronger allies, so such a move would not be entirely altruistic.

Of course, Mei wasn't putting all her money on that bet. Senju Tsunade could take the view that it would be foolish to improve the military capacity of a village with a history of in-fighting, isolationism, and aggression. She could even be right. In the event that that Konoha refused to help them seal the Three-Tailed beast, then the next course of action would be to snag an Uzumaki, probably the one that had been so helpfully plastered on wanted posters. The kid was reputed to be a B-class shinobi, but a kunoichi of that level could be controlled. When their other option was kidnapping Jiraiya of the Sannin, it looked downright reasonable.

(They'd only just gotten the village under control. It would be a damn shame to have it destroyed by toads and be laughed at to boot).

Of course, that was assuming that Rock's information was correct. For all they knew, she could be a useless genin or the second coming of the Shodaime. Generally speaking, Rock couldn't find their asses with both hands, and the picture they'd scrounged up to accompany the entry had looked out of date. There was no way that they were looking for a B-class ten year old with a goofy smile. (and who smiled for official photos, anyway?)

A masked shinobi in the uniform of a Kiri hunter-nin knelt in front of Mei, holding out the copy of the admission verification that had just been processed at the front gate. She took it eagerly, having been anxious to find out who the Godaime Hokage had sent. Mei hadn't really expected that the woman would come herself, a fact that she was prepared to pretend to be slighted by if she needed more leverage.

The three shinobi waited silently on their Kage. Thankfully, she was a fast reader. Mei didn't bother to censor her expression as she read, vacillating between interest, irritation, and finally surprised humor.

She had to laugh with genuine amusement, wiping a tear from her eye and flicking it across the room with a delicate finger. "The Godaime Hokage sends her regrets that she cannot meet in person, but she sends her two apprentices in her place. Along with the escort team of Hatake Kakashi, two men with no last names, and one Uzumaki Aiko."

"Well, that's convenient," Ao muttered.

"They may as well have sent gift wrap," Chojuru half-laughed, reaching up to touch the handle of his sword reflexively.
Mei tutted. "Now now boys, play nice. That may be completely unnecessary." She stood, flicking a lock of hair over her shoulder. "Let's go meet our guests, hmm? They must be tired from their long trip. It would only be polite to greet them and send them to bed instead of forcing them to the negotiation table now."

________________________________________

'This place is sketchy as shit.'

Mist was everything she'd dreamed and more, sort of. Aiko stayed close to her shishou's side, doing her best to keep her gaze on Shizune and Sasuke's backs and fought to keep a neutral expression. It was a rare situation that made her feel like this—if she'd been a fresh genin, she might have cried.

It was just… well. It couldn't be pinned to any one thing. Perhaps it was the obviously years old bloodstains on streets and building faces. Maybe it was the fresh splatter over that- weeks at the oldest. It could have been the low-hanging fog that reminded her uncomfortably of how close Zabuza had come to killing her all those months ago.

But it was probably the combination of ambient killing intent and the way that every single person they saw stopped and stared silently, expressionless but somehow cold and evaluative.

She felt warmth against her side and realized she'd leaned so close to her shishou that she could feel his ambient heat. He gave no comment, but she reluctantly pulled back. As much as Aiko wanted to either turn around towards Fire Country or hide behind Kakashi, she had a job to do.

Besides, none of her companions seemed to be having trouble. She could understand why Kakashi didn't mind (he was the baddest fucker on the whole block, that's why, and probably the coolest, strongest, best-smelling person in the world); Sai had been brain-washed into near emotionlessness, and Shizune and Yamato were both elite ANBU shinobi in their own right.
But Sasuke? She couldn't let Sasuke be braver than she was. She had two years of experience on him and had probably killed more people than he'd said hello to in the past year.

Of course, he did have the benefit of being young and malleable enough for Konoha's military minded indoctrination and desensitization program to have worked. Aiko wasn't stupid enough to claim that she was the same person she had been when she first came to awareness, but she could be certain that if she were to point out every instance she saw of structural inequality or unethical behavior, she would be sent to a Yamanaka mind healer to get her head on straight. She couldn't afford that, so she was stuck patching together whatever coping mechanisms she could to deal with the stress of her job.
Usually, she found refuge in humor. Often it was dark humor. But it was hard to find even gallows humor right now when she felt like she could hardly breathe and the Mist was going to choke the life right out of her.

It was probably for the best that Shizune and Sasuke were the focus of attention, listening to their escort at the front of the group talk quietly. They passed into what had to be an administration building, and Aiko did her best to look like muscle—that was her job here. Thankfully there was some form of heating inside, and she relaxed a bit. As much as she complained internally about Konoha's awful heat, she'd gotten used to it and the damp chill here was very uncomfortable. It curled up into her lungs like it would never leave.

A woman who could only be Terumi Mei was waiting inside a spartan room with a muscled man at either shoulder like the best sort of accessory. "Greetings," she purred. And it really was a purr. Aiko knew immediately that this was a woman who wielded sex as a deadly weapon. "You are Tsunade's representatives, I take it?" She spent just long enough eying up Shizune and Sasuke to make it clear that it wasn't really a question. "I would like to personally thank you for coming, and hope that you enjoy our hospitality. You will be staying nearby, actually."

"I'm sure we will both benefit from this," Shizune smiled. It was false. "Konoha would like to extend congratulations on your ascendance to Mizukage and wish you the best. As a token of our thanks for this invitation, we would like to offer you a gift."
Mei raised an eyebrow. The bulky man on her right stiffened, glaring at Shizune suspiciously with his one visible eye. Kakashi stared back at him with a bored expression and his one eye. Aiko rather suspected that if things dissolved into some bizarre optical pissing match against the stolen Byakugan she was sure was hidden under that, Konoha would come out on top. (Granted, she couldn't be sure and her memory was fuzzy, but one of the other villages definitely had a bodyguard with a stolen eye).

"How generous."

Shizune held out her left hand, accepting the scroll that Kakashi passed into her grip without either of them so much as looking away from their respective glaring counterparts. Effortlessly, she pulled off the seal and unrolled it, passing a green-tinted hand over it in a rather impressively casual way and extracting an enormous sword that she pulled backwards and over her head, flipping it so that she held it in front of her sideways with both hands.

Eyepatch guard had flinched forward and pulled out a weapon sometime while Shizune had extracted the sword. His companion had cursed, but stilled with wide eyes to stare at the sword Shizune was holding. It was menacing and significantly taller than the woman holding it, easily out-weighing her by at least 20 lbs. She very noticeably didn't look the slightest bit strained by it.
"This was confiscated by one of our teams against Momochi Zabuza."

Mei had tensed. She was putting up a good show of nonchalance, to be sure. Nothing in her facial expression or body language from the torso down was hinting at anything out of the usual. But the delicate muscles in her neck were pointedly still, all but shouting that she was intentionally not reacting.

Shizune gave a sharp little smile, with more than a hint of, 'You didn't know that he was dead, did you,' behind it. As much as it was a generous gift, it was also a slap in the face with a reminder of the difference in their villages' respective power. It would only be better if…

"If I may be so bold, what team do we have to thank for ending our most infamous missing nin?"

Yes. It would only be better if Mei gave that opening. She must really be off-guard, Aiko mused. It was really sort of fun watching the back and forth exchange and guessing at the subtle undercurrents.

Shizune knew the opening was too easy to pass up as well. She gestured easily at her companions. "That actually would have been the genin team led by Hatake Kakashi here."

"I see." Mei gave a very fake smile. "Then I should extend my thanks to you in person."

"No need," Kakashi said with a held up hand and an eye-smile. "It was actually my apprentice here who killed him." Then the bastard who'd sold her out in front of a room of S-class ninjas helpfully prodded her forward so that he didn't have to deal with them anymore.

'Fuck you, shishou,' she thought darkly as the room became quiet and something strange passed over Mei's face when she looked at the girl. But only for a moment, then it was gone. Aiko didn't risk words, giving only a slight incline of her head that could pass as a bow or acknowledgement and raising her face to look directly into Mei's eyes. They were hard and considering.
Then she smiled and the room lit up. "Well then, thank you, Aiko-chan. I expect great things from you."

Unnerved by the tensions she sensed but didn't understand, she just nodded. 'Why does the Mizukage know my name?' her mind shrieked helplessly.

"Well, I'm sure you are all tired from your long trip. Hana, please take our guests to their chambers."

The shinobi who had taken them through the village nodded blankly, turning around and leading them out.

Later that night, Aiko relaxed onto the bed in the room she would be sharing with Shizune. This was of course after Kakashi and Yamato had swept the whole apartment for listening devices and techniques, traps, and all manner of explosives. It had been so clean that they had become suspicious and ran a second sweep. That also turned up nothing.

Understandably, they had been on edge since.

Aiko had taken advantage of the luxuriously oversized tub and taken a bath with Shizune. They'd intended to talk about how the meeting had gone and debrief, but had ended up just enjoying the soak. After about an hour and a half, she had trailed out of the bathroom with a blue towel piled on her head and another around her torso, passing her grumpy-looking teammate on the way out.

Sasuke had gotten stuck with Sai as his guardian shadow, a proposition he was much less pleased about than Shizune was to have Aiko or that Yamato was to be able to room and work with his senpai. Sasuke had apparently been crabby enough to snap at Yamato about his obvious enthusiasm to sleep with Kakashi. Poor guy. ('In the same room,' he blustered, ears burning, 'not 'together' together or anything, unless- I mean… I'm going to go patrol.')

"It took you two long enough," he all but growled. Shizune came out of the room after Aiko and poked his nose shamelessly.
"Don't be a grump, Sasuke-kun. It doesn't suit you at all. The bath is free now, you should go have a soak." He looked as though he wanted to heave a sigh, but merely got to his feet and picked up the pile of clothes he must have gotten ready while they had been in the bath.
Sai looked up from where he was seated cross-legged on the floor with a sketchbook. "Are we bathing together as well, Dickless?"

Sasuke gave him an acidic look that could burn through metal and slammed the door behind him.

"I suppose not," Sai hmmed, sounding slightly disappointed.

Aiko rubbed her towel on her hair, crossing the room to pat his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. Sasuke is a little hard to get to know." She gave him an easy smile, disengaging effortlessly to go put on new clothes. Sasuke would probably sneer at her oversized red t-shirt and the loose blue pants paired with them, but they were comfortable.

In the hours before it became late enough to go to bed, she pulled out her supplies and worked on the sky-blue book of movie transcripts. She was on a bit of a roll and having a lot of fun expanding on Haku's background (hey, she wasn't bound by time limits or a budget, so she may as well include the scene where Yubaba tricked him into her service when he was trapped in the spirit world instead of edging it in at the last minute). She curled into the couch with the notebook resting on a pillow on her lap, taking a page off of writing to fill in one of her stylized depictions of Haku as the river spirit.

"You draw."

She looked up at Sai, mildly startled. She'd all but forgotten that there were other people in the room. "Um, yes. Mostly just people. I'm no good at scenery or animals."

"You're not that good at people either," he monotoned, gaze focused on her paper. "This detailing is highly unrealistic. The eyes are too large, and the proportions are all wrong."

Aiko seriously considered reaching out and shoving her pen into his gut just to watch him bleed. 'That won't help anything,' she reminded herself. 'You decided to go with 'calm' and understanding. Stick to it. He might respond well to reason.' Out loud, she let just a hint of irritation color her next words. "Actually, it's meant to be that way. It's a stylistic decision on my part, not a failure to understand human anatomy."

"Why." Yamato, the only other person in the room, looked up and gave him a slightly disbelieving look. She felt a strange, sudden kinship with him.

"It's just how my art looks. I take it you're more interested in realism?" Maybe turning the conversation around on him would give her a better idea of where to take this or get him to back off so she could go back to work. This picture wasn't going to color itself.

The ANBU just stood there, unresponsive for a moment. "I am not aware of this terminology."

"Right," Aiko muttered, turning back to her work. "Of course you aren't."

How long was that goddamn diva going to spend in the bath? Things became silent and awkward. When Sasuke finally flounced out in his fancy silk pajamas (decorated with one of those enormous, garish fans on the back), she gave him a downright filthy look. He looked confused.

"Sai, go take a bath."

________________________________________

Tsunade groaned, rubbing at her forehead and wishing that everyone else would just drop dead. It hadn't been clear until now just how much Shizune ameliorated her obscene workload. She had been able to keep up, of course, but she had a massive stress headache. Poor Keiko was on the verge of tears. Tsunade only wished she could have made the poor secretary's day less stressful, but she had a question she needed answered while she was thinking of it.

Besides, she needed to get out of the building or she was going to snap and level it. It was ugly anyways.

It wasn't hard to find her former mentor, although she was slightly haunted by the betrayed look on her secretary's face when she had cancelled all appointments and escaped. He hadn't been leaving the family property lately, apparently content spending much more time with his grandson than he'd been able to before.

Tsunade pulled up a seat beside his position overlooking a fragrant garden, fingering the latest update from Jiraiya. He seemed to be engrossed in bird watching. She glanced at the avian cleaning its wings on the central pond, unimpressed by the view. "Sensei."

He didn't react. She frowned.

"Sensei." He blinked gummily, turning to look at her.

"Did you say something, my dear?"

An alarm started going off faintly in her head. Unnerved but not exactly certain what was wrong, Tsunade shelved the unease and showed him the letter. "I just got a letter from Jiraiya, asking why you tested Aiko on fuinjutsu but never followed up on teaching her after she showed promise."

Hiruzen frowned slightly, turning to look at her with a puff on his unlit pipe. "Aiko?"

Tsunade rolled her eyes and snapped at him. "Yes, Uzumaki Aiko, remember? The redhead."

He gazed blankly at her for a moment, before seeming to understand. "Ah! You mean Kushina-chan. She's being trained, of course."

The fifth Hokage stared uncomprehendingly. Then she stood and cursed thoroughly, managing to startle the ducks in the pond. "Well, this explains a lot, like those exhaustive notes," she sighed. Her stress headache was suddenly compounding and turning into a migraine. How had no one noticed that the Hokage had been having memory lapses? How long had he been hiding this?

She felt pity swell up, and felt like the worst kind of traitor. The stress her mentor had been under for the past ten years or so was largely her fault. She had known that he was too old for such a stressful job. He had never wanted to retake his position, but no one capable and willing to take the job had stepped forward. Konoha had very few S-class nin at any point in time, but in the wake of the Kyuubi attack and the end of the war Tsunade had been fifty percent of that group. With Orochimaru turned traitor and Jiraiya in avoidant mourning, Tsunade had been the obvious choice.

Not only had she not stepped up when she first should have, she had even failed to provide support for her aging mentor. Tsunade sank down into her chair again, cradling her head in her hands. She had been highly critical when she had left to become a missing-nin in all but name. She had abandoned him in his time of need almost as thoroughly as Orochimaru had. And yet he had never lost faith in her, knowing that she would return home years before she did.

Tsunade tiredly patted her sensei's bony shoulder as she left, silently resolving to do better by him. But first things first, she was going to parse through his old notes to figure out what else she had missed.

Hatake could start the Uzumaki girl on sealing, she decided. He wasn't exactly going to be called a master anytime soon, but he knew enough to stop a rampaging Jinchuuriki. (She was relatively certain that fact had factored highly into the decision to make him Naruto's sensei).

She'd send him a message via slug. He may as well make himself useful while he was lounging around in Mist. Lazy little shit. She valiantly ignored that she'd been the one to send him there in favor of being irritated that he wasn't here to yell at.
________________________________________

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Karin fiddled with her glasses in lieu of fidgeting more obviously, feeling the nervous urge to twist her fingers in her skirt.

Hinata took a deep breath of the afternoon air, obviously feeling some nerves but bolstered by having the support of her best friend at her right side and both her mentors, although Kurenai and Anko weren't there with them at the moment. The hope was that in the rush to get out for the day, the office workers wouldn't have time to gossip about what she was about to do.
She had gotten advice from both of her mentors and talked over her options. Anko had been surprisingly calm and fair-minded about the whole thing, abandoning her usual devil-may-care act and showing an analytical intelligence. Kurenai had been less knowledgeable, but her unconditional support had been just as helpful. Hinata knew that when she told her other teammates, Kiba and Shino would be just as supportive.

Sometimes she had to stop and marvel at just how much her life had changed. Now that she had been branded and disgraced, no one cared about how she performed anymore. No one seemed to judge her, and Hanabi had no reason to work her fingers raw practicing to defeat Hinata. Getting the brand might be the best thing that had ever happened to her. Her little sister was now safe from it, and had no reason to feel competitive. It was a weight off her shoulders.

Her new freedom was exhilarating. For the first time in her life, Hinata had friends who supported her unconditionally. Sometimes she laid up at night and felt so happy that she wanted to cry. So many people saw potential in her where her blood relations had seen only failure.

Kurenai-sensei had always been kind. Shino wanted what was best for her. Kiba wanted her to be happy. Anko-sensei offered tests that she understood in things like teamwork and self-discipline for the good of the whole. And Karin…

She turned a watery smile on her favorite person in Konoha. There must be something very special in the Uzumaki line, something a hundred times better than the Hyuuga eyes or an Inuzuka nose. They never gave up or cared what anyone else thought. Karin had seen her at her absolute worst, after a month of hospitalization, and seen something no one else had. She would always be grateful. This… this was what it was like to be family and not a clan.

"I'm certain." Hinata clenched her fingers tightly around the paperwork that would declare her intentions to sever all ties and obligations to the Hyuuga. It would cause uproar, of course. It was a very aggressive, hostile move.

But the Hyuuga's practice of branding their branch families with controlling seals had caused disquiet in the early days of Konoha's founding. It had been the very first Hokage who had pointed out that this system amounted to slavery, unless there was a way to discard one's name and leave the clan.

The logic was that choosing not to do so would constitute implicit agreement to the system, although it was certainly coercive and unethical according to Aiko. (She had said something that Hinata hadn't really understood in a very impassioned way, but she appreciated the support nonetheless). She'd claimed that the practice of branding clan members while they were toddlers completely undermined the system and then dissolved into incoherent ranting in that funny made-up language she and Naruto had used back in school. The Hyuuga had been willing to make the concession for the protection of a fledgling village, drastically weakened after their own fighting with a clan that no longer existed.

It had never been used before. The consequences were harsh, after all. She would have no name, like an orphan or whore's child, and the Hyuuga would likely curse her and her family forever. That was likely to be a moot point, because she would have to agree not to ever have a child of her blood and pass down the Byakugan. Karin had been outraged by that point. It made Hinata sad too. She had always wanted to be a mother one day. But… Did she really need to dream of one day building a family when she had one now?

________________________________________

Omake –did this happen? Maybe. Maybe not.

After the door had slammed shut behind the Konoha nin, the placid look had fled from the Mizukage's face. She stood and flipped her desk, tangling her hands in her hair and stomping immaturely for a few moments. Ao watched impassively, but Chojuru looked downright alarmed at the fit of temper. He fiddled uncomfortably with the second famous sword in the room, swiveling it slightly against the floor.

"Those fuckers," Mei hissed when she had calmed down enough to use words again.

Used to this more common expression of irritation, Chojuru shifted slightly in place and wondered when he was going to get to go home for the night. He'd forgotten to bring his warmer haori with him to work that day, and it looked to be ugly out there.
Mei began to pace like a caged cat. "That Senju woman is rubbing her strength in my face."

"Hey, senpai," Chojuru whispered to his comrade. "Do you have a coat I can borrow?"

"She's mocking me."

He cringed away from the scathing look Ao directed at him.

"Just because I am young and beautiful and she's a dried out hag!"

"It's not that cold," Ao mumbled to his comrade with a condescending eyeroll. Not quite quietly enough, however.
Mei whirled on him, eyes narrowed. "Old? I'll kill you, Ao."

He blinked, confused.

"I'll kill you."

"Okay?" he said a bit uncertainly.

Chapter Text

"This is ridiculous," Elder Chiyo spat. "This insolent pup thinks to tell us that he should be Kazekage? Boy, you don't frighten me."

Gaara gave no reaction to her hostility, even as others cringed away from the tantrum they half-expected. Not so long ago, even Elder Chiyo would not have dared to speak to him thusly. In a way, he chose to take it as a show of faith. "I do not wish to lead by fear," he said finally, slowly. "It is my dream that I can use my strength to protect my people. I know that my past actions still reflect heavily on me, but I am no longer that person and wish to make amends." Then he stopped. It was almost physically tiring to use so many words, after years of monosyllabic response and brief promises about the pain he would inflict. He much preferred to wait and listen.

Temari was torn between being proud of her brother for his nobility and irritated at the show of what others would see as weakness instead of a new font of strength. She clenched her jaw, knowing that this was the moment of truth. The council could bend knee, or make life very difficult. She would eventually bring them down, of course, but Gaara wouldn't like it.
The wizened old hag narrowed her eyes at him, gaze flickering to his stomach gate. Then she laughed, wheezing and coughing. "He has spirit," she forced out between cackles. "All right. I will support it."

Most of the room looked aghast. Many of them were probably thinking that the elder (and her brother who immediately fell in agreement) had finally gone completely senile. It was a stupid assumption- the honored siblings had been eccentric for as long as Temari could remember. This was probably a normal sort of weirdness. But no one dared to speak those doubts.
"Well then," Baki raised his voice over the horrified rumble and incomprehensible murmurs. "Long live with Fifth Kazekage." He was the first to bow. Shinobi stumbled to follow his lead, many shaking.

It was not the acceptance that Gaara wanted. Temari could see something twist in his eyes at the sight of his people so cowed by a combination of fear and tradition, but he merely nodded gravely. "Thank you, honored Elders and council. I will do my best to serve Suna's interests and guard from her enemies."

When the siblings were alone, Temari gave her brother a one-armed hug, bending slightly to rest her chin on his deceptively frail shoulder. "Congratulations, otouto," she murmured into his ear. She nestled into the hug, not minding that he barely responded. She knew that he appreciated it, but he still didn't know quite how to reciprocate affection. "One day, they'll accept you. I know that you will make me proud."

"You two are full of feelings and I'm leaving," Kankuro muttered, doing just that.

Temari ignored her significantly less cute brother for the moment. A warm hand rested gently on her shoulder blades. She didn't react, but was immensely pleased by the uncommon show of affection.

"Thank you Temari," he rumbled into her ear.

She teared up a little and pulled back, turning her face away and wiping at her eyes with a sleeve. "My little otouto, all grown up with a big manly voice and becoming a military dictator."

He froze like a rat facing a predator. "Temari, stop."

"I'm so prooouuud," she faux-wailed to tease. Gaara winced at the high pitch.

"No."

"They grow up so fast. You haven't even hit puberty."

"Temari."

"We should talk about girls. You'll need to know now that you're a big stud with a fancy hat. They'll be on you like brown on rice and you'll have to protect your virtue."

"I'm leaving."

"You know this means you can't go to Konoha to visit your pretty girlfriend anymore," she called after him as he hustled out. He paused slightly, but didn't turn around as he escaped. She didn't really believe he'd hold to that at all. He had been getting occasional letters from Uzumaki Naruto, but had never agreed to exchange letters with his second friend before they had needed to leave Hi nu Kuni. Now that Gaara had a taste for human socialization, he didn't want to give it up. Temari didn't begrudge it. Very few people could treat him normally, and so of course he would prize that when he found it.

But it was her job to tease him, and she had years to make up for. Speaking of sisterly duty…

"When are you going to achieve anything, huh? Gaara is Kazekage, your sister is the most beautiful kunoichi in the world, and you're still playing with dolls. Ugly dolls, too."

"Oh hell, Temari, just go away. And they're puppets, not dolls!"
________________________________________

Apparently, it was considered too aggressive to bring four bodyguards to a single meeting. For at least the first meeting, Kakashi and Sai were the assigned bodyguards.

That left Aiko and Yamato awkwardly waiting in the apartment, avoiding each other's eyes and not talking. The others had left in the early morning, and it was almost noon by the time Aiko finally cracked.

'This is ridiculous,' Aiko sighed, stealing a glance at the man as he poked around in their tiny kitchen, muttering something baffled about the strange array of foreign implements in Suna. He'd found a spatula, wooden spoon, and several pots that looked exactly like what Aiko had seen in Konoha. 'We have to be able to get along. I don't want to be fighting with him.' Then she paused. 'Plus I want to be able to eat at some point.' ANBU must not teach anything practical like how to survive between missions. Shame. Maybe it was a conspiracy funded by all the stall owners in Konoha to force them into patronage.

"Yamato." He turned to look at her, eyes dark and slightly suspicious. The serious expression was slightly undermined by the pile of metal cradled against his chest. Aiko balked a little at having to be the mature one, but swallowed and went on with it. "I think we got off on the wrong foot. I wanted to apologize for teasing you."

The man put down the pots he'd been fiddling with onto the counter with a clatter, absently flicking the wooden spoon he'd found between his long fingers. One of the pots fell to the floor, rolling under the table with obnoxious sound. He pretended not to notice. "That was unexpected," he mumbled, using his free hand to ruffle his hair. Then he sighed. "You're probably right. I should apologize too. I took out irritation from other sources onto you when we first met."

"So…" she touched her big toes together, raising her calves up and balancing onto the balls of her feet. Fidgeting was a bad nervous habit, but she didn't mind now. "Are we good, then?"

At his nod, she relaxed, moving to pull vegetables out of the fridge. "Good, because I was starting to get seriously worried about what you would do to this kitchen. Do you know how to wash rice?"

"Um…"

"No wonder I'm shishou's favorite student," she sighed, nudging his ribs with her elbow and demonstrating while she talked. "Pay attention, then. How are you ever going to win his loooove if you can't cook, huh?" At his bright flush, she cackled. "Sorry, but you just seem like the homemaker in that equation." She shoved the bowl into his hands and gently nudged him into place in front of the sink, ignoring his stunned expression. "I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that feeding his publically acceptable base desires is the best way to get to feed his other base desires. Don't you want to be the 'Yamato Nadeshiko' instead of just an awkward Yamato?"

"Why doesn't anyone believe that I don't want to have sex with Kakashi-senpai?" Yamato wailed, still dutifully agitating the rice like she'd shown him. He took orders well, she'd give him that.

"Well," a husky voice drew out teasingly from behind them. Yamato stiffened and slowly began to turn around to see his amused senpai and a smirking Uchiha. "That hurts my delicate feelings. Why would my cute little kohai say such a thing?"

"Denial," Sasuke dead-panned, walking past Kakashi to relax against the counter and stare curiously at what the others were doing. Aiko gave a little half-wave of greeting with her shoulder, not daring to lift the chopping knife she was using on vegetables.
"You two are back early," she half-stated, half-asked.

"Yupp." Apparently Kakashi felt it was fine to leave the conversation at that and pulled out his book. As he wandered into the other room, Aiko and Sasuke rolled their eyes in unison. Yamato was still doing his level best to sink into the floor.
"Long story, but the Mizukage's paranoid half-blind bodyguard thought that I was too young and Kakashi was too obnoxious, so to soothe hurt feelings, Shizune sent us back."

"Pandering to that sounds like a terrible idea," Aiko muttered, chopping with a little more force.

Sasuke shrugged indifferently, peering into the bowl where she was tossing vegetables as she worked. "It wasn't very interesting anyway. The Mizukage has something she wants to ask but is talking around it, and Shizune is politely not committing to anything but saying nice things that ultimately amount to nothing."

"That does sound boring," Yamato agreed. Sasuke looked up at him, condescension written on his fine features.
"You're still here?" Yamato looked mildly outraged. Sasuke blinked heavy-lidded eyes at him, clearly unimpressed. "Why don't you go and try to seduce Kakashi again. Just don't say anything. Doubtless you'll only drive him away with your lack of wit." The sheer hypocrisy inherent in that –Sasuke was hardly a wordsmith himself- was probably making Yamato see red, but Aiko just snickered quietly into her sleeve.

She'd agreed to a general truce to Yamato, but that didn't mean she intended to be too nice.

They did their best to wait, but Shizune and Sai were gone through lunch and they ended up eating without them. Out of sheer boredom, Aiko had turned to baking while everyone else lazed around like a pride of lions- dangerous but bored and waiting for something to happen. When Shizune made it back to the apartment, she didn't pull any punches.
"It was a bad idea to bring you, Aiko."

Aiko blinked in surprise, a little hurt. "What'd I do?" She hadn't even left the apartment since they'd been ushered inside and told that they shouldn't wander, someone will be here for your group in the morning, thank you goodnight.

The older girl slumped down into a comfortable chair, shaking her head. "That's not what I meant. Terumi-san asked in a faux-casual way how Konoha had squirreled away the Uzumaki when everyone else thought they were dead. I dodged the question, but she wouldn't have asked if you weren't on her mind." She took a deliberate pause. The room was silently watching her, except for Sasuke who frankly looked confused. "Not too long after, the conversation came around to the former Mizukage and the problems left from his disposal."

Kakashi cursed, lowly under his breath.

'And he told me not to listen to Anko.' She didn't have time to tease him for his hypocrisy.

"I suppose it would be a bit rude to leave," Yamato asked a bit dryly.

Shizune snorted tiredly. "I would say so."

"I don't understand," Sasuke interjected. "What's the connection?" Doubtlessly he sensed the tension but didn't know why. Aiko was maintaining a diplomatic silence. She wasn't sure what she could reasonably pretend to have inferred or figured out on her own, and she had never been told a thing about Kushina. As much as she'd like to wipe the frustration off her kohai's face, it was more intelligent to play ignorant.

"The Uzumaki were famous for their fuinjutsu prowess." Sasuke for once fixed a look at Sai without a trace of hostility, though it was intense. "They were said to be experts nearly from childhood."

"Well, I'm not," Aiko pointed out self-depreciatingly. "I can't give them what they want."

"Do you think they'd believe that if we told them," Shizune groaned, rubbing at her temples. "Although there is quite a bit of merit to what they want done. It would save a lot of lives."

"We're not considering this." The tone of command made everyone straighten involuntarily and look at Kakashi as if waiting for orders. "Shizune, I want to talk to you alone."

"Fine. Everyone out."
________________________________________

It was a terrible time for her apprentices to be gone. Tsunade felt so old and so tired. Something thoroughly strange was going on, and she had the fear in her gut that the feeling she couldn't quite identify was the premonition that war was brewing.
It had seemed a good idea at the time, and given a chance she would do it again, but forming that alliance with Sand had apparently started something altogether odd. Villages were solidifying alliances and courting each other and shutting down information. Even their allies were quiet. Sand had called some sort of internal summit and closed up last week, although that in itself wouldn't normally be so alarming because it was probably to choose a Kazekage. They hadn't heard from Grass in weeks, not even from their plants in the village. The minor villages were banding together for protection against some threat that Tsunade did not yet see.

'Perhaps that Terumi woman knew something I didn't,' Tsunade thought rather sourly. The timing certainly was convenient, and it was far too late to tell the team to pull back. If something was about to happen, Konoha would need all the allies they could handle. That in mind, she bit her thumb savagely and healed it with a kiss of minty chakra in the very same instant, using the blood to summon a smaller slug. "Could I have you deliver a message to Shizune-chan?" She asked politely. At the affirmative wiggle, she took a deep breath. "Shizune, I need to make that alliance. Do what you need to do in order that it happens and then get your team home. Something is very wrong, but I don't know what yet. Be safe."

With that, she released her hold on the summon, knowing that even now she would be tugging on her link to Shizune. The instant the girl had a moment, she would excuse herself and take the message.

With at least one thing off her to-do list, Tsunade gave a longing look at the window and strode out to check the pileup of information that Keiko was busily compiling. "Anything I need to look at first?"

Then she noticed just how pale and drawn the older woman looked. "Hai, Hokage-sama. I just got notice that an envoy from a foreign village is at the gate awaiting approval for admittance."

She had to take a moment to be sure she'd heard correctly. That… that was not usual. It was almost always considered a hostile act to arrive at a foreign village without invitation or notice. No wonder her secretary looked nervous- something was about to happen. "Alright then. ANBU." The guard who habitually waited in the office with Keiko flickered into view. She idly noticed the mask- squirrel- and gave out her orders. "I want a low key escort to the fifth meeting room. I will meet with them immediately."

When she saw the forehead protectors, Tsunade paled a little bit. 'Nadeshiko? What the hell?' The all-female village was famously isolationist, staying on their island chain home and only venturing to the closest part of the continent for missions and supplies.

The two women in front of her bowed in unison, letting long braided hair slip over their uniforms. "Greetings, Hokage-sama," they murmured. "Thank you for your hospitality." The light-haired one remained in a bow, but the other straightened to fix her with a fearless gaze. "We have come to negotiate alliance, after the fall of Grass."
"W-what."
That was news to her. They exchanged a look that implied they weren't surprised. "We had wondered if you were aware. They were razed almost two weeks ago, by a village calling themselves Sound."

"We did not know what Grass had done to anger this Sound so," the other continued seamlessly. "But when they immediately turned on other small villages, it became clear that they are only interested in wanton genocide."

"Our glorious leader has selected the two most civilized of the major villages as potential allies, and sent teams to gain strength."

She was momentarily perplexed by that- by what standard had they selected the most 'civilized' villages? Nadeshiko was notoriously eccentric- and then she had the bleakly amused thought that this was probably the first time Mist had been referred to as 'civilized.'

"Konoha and Mist," she asked, just to confirm. The placid nods she received in return confirmed her thought, but she was polite enough not to break into hysterical laughter. "Very well. What can Nadeshiko offer Konoha? Konoha offers our strength and protection in times of unprovoked war."

________________________________________
Danzo scowled, unhappy with the reports he'd been receiving that day. Koharu and Homura were weak to have given up their positions in such an important time. He would never similarly abandon Konoha. He had known about the women at the gate before the Hokage had, and had used the information from his own operatives to discern their motive.

If he'd had the chance, he might have had them killed before they could meet with Tsunade. She was weak, looking for strength outside Konoha instead of by digging deep into the core of their village. His operative with the team in Mist had sent a trail of ink mice that had arrived early in the morning, updating him with what was going on there.

Apparently, Shizune was eager to make alliance on her mentor's orders and had agreed to help Mist seal the Three-Tailed beast in one of their shinobi. This was pure foolishness. Konoha should reach out and take the weapon within its grasp.
Danzo could not allow Tsunade to make such a decision. It was undoubtedly for the best that he had planted some of his operatives in the main forces after she had unceremoniously pushed the Elders out the door. But it was not enough. He needed more information. The missive he wrote in reply was short and to the point. Gain the trust of your companions while you have the chance. The source of information he'd gathered was different from what he'd had from the Elders before, but no less potent. That idiotic Uzumaki girl and the ill-tempered Uchiha whelp must have had no training in counter-infiltration safety.
________________________________________
Omake
Chuunin exams, about 3 years ago

Suna

The natives snickered, watching the sour-looking foreign competitors glower and burn. There was just something about assassins with shiny red noses and cheeks that made it hard to feel intimidated. Aiko shifted from one foot to another, unhappily trying to somehow prevent her feet from burning where the sand crept in her sandals. 'At least I'm better off than the nin from Rain and Grass,' she thought somewhat optimistically. It was a very small exam group—exactly one competitor from Mist had showed up, without even a sensei. Kakashi was waiting back in the rooms reserved for political guests rather unhappily, but at least he had come with her.
The exam wasn't actually being held in Suna proper. Instead, the group had been escorted outside of city limits to what appeared to be a patch of desert like any other, except for the craggy outcropping of sandstone that held the entrance to rather extensive underground caves.
The kunoichi from Iwa was looking particularly smug about that. At least, she had until the proctor had casually mentioned that the whole structure was lined with explosives and causing structural damage to the cave system would almost certainly be a death sentence.

'So that's a no to using earth jutsu, then,' she decided. It didn't matter anyways. She didn't really have an earth jutsu. Most of her repertoire would be of limited use as well—no one was going to be dumb enough to assume sudden rainfall in a cave under a desert was natural and stay in it long enough to be poisoned—but at least she would have some water to work with. There was a good chance that there would be damp further below. Their guide had claimed there was a small reservoir nearby.
'Those snakes have to be getting water from somewhere.' She tried her very best not to cringe at the large animal sunning itself indolently in a pile of scales. There was something disturbing about a snake that didn't seem to care about being surrounded by a large group of people. Wouldn't most animals hide?

It seemed they were being released into the cave system in one-hour intervals with a partner from another village, a prospect that didn't particularly please any of the participants. As Suna was disproportionately represented, it seemed that just about everyone else got paired with a desert native. When it came her turn, Aiko gave her apparent partner a once-over. He didn't appear to be impressed by her, judging by the way he rolled his eyes and turned away, giving a long-suffering sigh. His teammates snickered. They were all considerably older than she was, and taller too. Aiko was and just about always had been tall for her age, but an eleven year old girl was still bound to be shorter than a fourteen year old boy. He was wearing off-white linen that blended in with the sand. She could see hints of protective metal mesh armor underneath, but his tanned hands were completely uncovered.

He led the way into the darkness, letting her carry the colored flags they were meant to deposit at certain locations to prove they had made it there. She was unamused to see that they had gotten pink.

Chapter Text

"Why won't you tell me what we're doing," Naruto whined. He dragged his feet on the dirt road theatrically, kicking up dust that tickled his sensei's nose and made him itch to sneeze.
Jiraiya snickered loudly, not bothering to hide his delight in withholding information from his protégé. He had thought it would be amusing to tell the boy that they were going to go somewhere Naruto would like to build anticipation, but he hadn't expected that the kid would never drop the topic. It was just plain obnoxious. At least it was worth a couple of laughs.
They were close anyways. He'd send the boy ahead to leave their things in a hotel room and get to the rendezvous point.
________________________________________
Four days prior.
"This is ridiculous," Kakashi said flatly, with closed off body language implying he was shutting the topic down. Aiko was familiar with it—that tone signaled that he was fed up and anyone who continued to annoy him would be running laps until their legs fell off or they begged for death to come. Whichever came second.
Shizune didn't take the hint, instead giving an uncharacteristic scowl. "You're not Hokage, Hatake. You have already established that you think this is a terrible idea. Your objections have been noted, and I'm going over your head."
Of course Shizune's own teacher had been the one Konoha nin who could rival Kakashi in scariness, so she was inured.
In the other room, Aiko and Yamato fidgeted uncomfortably. She was perched on the edge of a fluffy chair resting her head on her knees with shut eyes. She wished they would just stop already. After they had been unceremoniously tossed out of the room, things had been very quiet and discussion seemed to wind down… until the acidic tang of a summoning filled the air and a new argument started up.
"She's thirteen, and sealing is dangerous. Genius or not, you can't honestly think this is a viable solution."
Sasuke had left before things had gotten to that point, tired of what he saw as a pointless temper tantrum. She didn't blame him for being irritated—without knowing that the past Mizukage had been a jinchuuriki, he had no way to put together the rest of the puzzle. He was probably livid that Yamato had ordered Sai to follow him, but it was for the best not to wander around a foreign village alone. And despite how much she liked Sai (in theory, at least) he was almost certainly spying for Danzo at this point. The less he knew, the better.
"I'm sorry, I'm afraid I completely forgot that you were put in charge of this mission. I'll just go tell the Mizukage that we don't want that alliance after all, because you have a bad feeling about your student learning a new skill. Grow up already!"
Yamato gave a heavy sigh that covered Kakashi's angry rebuttal, staring up at the ceiling. The book he had started off with –a godawful boring looking tome with a picture of a wooden bridge on the cover—was resting on his chest sloppily with a couple lonely bent pages he hadn't noticed curled up against his chest.
"I hate it when mom and dad argue," Aiko joked sardonically, prompting a surprised huff of amusement from her companion.
The door opened and the oldest members of the team stepped out with a palpable sense of irritation. Shizune furrowed her brow, glancing around the room. "Where's Sasuke?"
"He went out for a walk," Yamato informed professionally, sitting up and closing his book gently. "I sent Sai with him."
"I'm sure he's delighted," Shizune sighed. Her hands twitched as if she wanted to reach for something. Instead she just smoothed her hands over the front of her kimono. "In any case. Aiko, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if I can negotiate it, you have a month to learn something that takes masters years, or at least memorize enough to complete a job and fake having mastered it so that Mist doesn't know we agreed to sell skills you don't have. The good news is that you're going to be meeting with your brother when we leave here. I've sent Jiraiya a message, and as soon as I get a response we'll coordinate a destination."
Aiko felt all her air escape in surprise. She turned to her shishou for reassurance. He was all but brooding, a veritable dark cloud in the room.
"And Hatake thinks this is a moronic idea," Shizune added somewhat sardonically. She'd clearly noted the automatic deferral to a man who was definitely not in charge of this mission.
Aiko shrugged noncommittally. "If Shishou says it is, this is probably an appalling idea. But if it's the only option available, we should get going."
This was actually an interesting outcome, she mused while the argument started up again. It'd be nice to see Naruto again. She was delighted to have Kakashi as her teacher, but the sheer prestige of having a chance to learn from a Sannin was a little seductive as well.
Then she wondered why Mist didn't just have Jiraiya do this job. He already knew how. It wasn't like they didn't know who he was—he was internationally famous for much more than his books. He acted like a bit of an idiot, but he was a nearly unrivaled Fuinjutsu genius, Kage class combatant, and intelligence expert.
Then again, maybe that was the problem? Perhaps they were wary of having such a powerful shinobi within their village and within arm's reach of one of their best weapons.
If that was the case, they were walking a rather delicate tightrope between having someone dangerous who could do the sealing and having an unthreatening incompetent who could do even more damage than Jiraiya by inadvertently releasing the Tailed Beast when they fucked up the sealing.
Aiko… well. Before this topic had come up, she would have said that her fuinjutsu skills were respectable. After her crash course under Anko's guidance, she had continued making them as a late-night hobby when she couldn't sleep. Explosive notes and sealing scrolls were expensive as all hell, so it wasn't a bad idea to make her own.
Not that she used either of them often, to be truthful. Aiko kept a small supply of both on her person most of the time for times when nothing else would do the trick, but they weren't a large part of her combat style. In the past, she had gotten plenty of practice supplying Naruto, who liked to pack everything but the kitchen sink and explode whatever he could whenever he could. Bit of a mad bomber, that one.
But being asked to seal a tailed beast… well, that was fuinjutsu on a completely different level. Aiko wasn't likely to ever put down her own skills. Her character flaw would lean more closely to valuing them too highly and underestimating others'. She knew that she had some really cool abilities, rockin' genetics, and intelligence significantly beyond what she allowed others to see. She was arrogant enough to believe that if she wanted to, she could become a sealing master capable of doing such a thing. But she wasn't quite arrogant enough to think that she could do that in a month.
Then again, she knew very little about the theoretical differentiation between expert fuinjutsu and layman practitioners' fuinjutsu. From what she understood, the parts of the discipline she was unfamiliar with had a lot more to do with ways of thinking. Creativity, sensing or making connections, and using cold hard logic were entirely different skill sets than the memorization and repetition of basic principals in standardized formats.
Then again, she'd been honing her creative abilities for years, so she might adapt well to fuinjutsu.
It didn't matter either way. She had her orders, so she had to do her best.
At least it turned out that Mei was perfectly willing to allow a little over a month's time for sealing preparations. She needed to find a suitable container anyway. Aiko winced at that when it was mentioned. It was hard to remember that she would be subjecting a real person to that kind of life. Was it evil? She would never go so far as to say that life as a jinchuuriki wasn't worth living, but it did make things much harder. Would that child hate her?
They almost certainly would, if she didn't do a good job.
So all she had to do was perform perfectly on a tight deadline. No big.
________________________________________
Jiraiya started snickering at the dumbstruck expression on his apprentice's face. He really did look pretty thick when he let his jaw hang open like that. Even grumpy little Kakashi-kun seemed to let his expression lift momentarily at the sight before returning to his normal glower.
"Aiko! Bastard! Sensei!" Naruto shrieked, running forward to pull the impassive little redhead into a hug that turned into a spin with her feet in the air. She patiently endured his attentions with a hint of an amused expression around her eyes, patting awkwardly at his back.
It was like a reversal of their parents—little Kushina had always been so exuberant. Minato had appreciated the attention, but never quite known what to do with it all.
The thought was a little painful, so he turned away. He thought he saw a hint of ruefulness in Kakashi-kun's gaze that indicated similar thoughts, so he turned his attention to Tsunade's adorable little apprentice. She was still cute, of course, but she looked like she'd been through a wringer. He politely chose not to mention that.
Jiraiya slid on the charm like a silk coat, practically slithering up into her personal space and dropping his voice a few pitches. "Fancy seeing you here, Shizune-chan. Have I ever told you that you've really grown up into a beautiful young lady?"
"You could try to sound a little less like a pedophile," the grumpy looking brat lurking by Shizune's side (as if to use her as a shield from Naruto's enthusiasm) grumbled. Jiraiya spared him a scowl. Why had Tsunade taken on that brat again?
"Jiraiya-sama, thank you for meeting us here," Shizune politely bypassed the insult and the disgusted 'tch' sound that the boy made at being ignored.
He leered. "Of course, anything for a pretty lady." Then he eyed the rest of the group. "The rest of you can leave, though."
None of them laughed, probably warned by his reputation. Hatake gave him a smile through his eyes, though, so he counted it as a win. It was always nice to be able to cheer up that gloomy brat. Even Minato had had a hard time with that. Finally, he took pity on the girl and pried her brother off by the scruff of his collar. Naruto dangled, scratching and hissing like an angry kitten, but Jiraiya just held his arm out a little further. When the boy tried to bite him, Jiraiya irritably shook the boy. "Stop that, you're embarrassing me. You'll have plenty of time to catch up." Then he leered theatrically at the girl. "You can call me shishou." He turned back to Shizune, already done with dutifully acknowledging his goddaughter. "Anyway, we shoul-"
"No."
Jiraiya startled, turning back to the girl. She'd seemed so quiet in the few times he'd seen her. It was hard to believe she was as disrespectful as her brother. Not for the first time, he noted that there was something creepy about the kid, something just a little off. He couldn't quite explain it, but she seemed to be evaluative and removed even when she put an expression on her face. All the muscles moved correctly, even the creases around her eyes, but it seemed like a dead mask over her real thoughts instead of a reflection of her emotions.
He was probably just seeing things where nothing existed.
"I'm very sorry, but I cannot call you shishou." She ignored the scandalized "Aiko!" from Shizune and gave a short bow, letting her hair slide down to expose her vulnerable neck in a show of submissiveness. "Sensei. I can only have one shishou."
Jiraiya let a little smile tug at his lips. He wasn't altogether opposed to insolence, especially when it was paired with loyalty. Hatake looked mildly floored. Perhaps he hadn't realized he was held in such high regard.
If Jiraiya was a different type of man, he might have minded the snub. As it was, he let it wash right off his back with a nod. "So be it." To lighten the mood and lift the irritated expression from poor Shizune's exhausted features, he gave a dramatic scowl and pointed at his wayward apprentice. The boy had wiggled out of his grip when Jiraiya had lost interest, and was standing with his arms crossed aggressively. "You may call me sensei, as long as you do not allow his disrespectful habits to taint your own ladylike disposition!"
There was a far-too-loud snort from the dweeb in the face-framing leaf headband. He turned red as a cherry when most of the group turned to look at him with varying expressions. The kid looked like he wanted to body flicker a mile away, but he didn't apologize.
"What is going on here?" Naruto demanded. "I don't want you anywhere near my sister, you big pervert!"
Something twitched in Jiraiya's eye. The kid made it sound like he was completely unable to control himself, liable to victimize a goddamn child. He really didn't appreciate the connotations of his apprentice's constant accusations. Jiraiya was many things, some of which he even acknowledged as faults. He was a super-pervert, not a pedophile or rapist. He liked to admire and flirt with all women because it was enjoyable. It made him feel gallant, it made them feel pretty, and sometimes even served a useful purpose like distraction or information gathering. It could be amusing to flirt with someone who was uninterested or unsuited, like Shizune-chan. But he would never touch a woman without her permission. He was gallant, a real gentleman!
"I'm not worried," Aiko offered blandly. "And what's so bad about being a pervert anyways? Everyone is. If we weren't, we wouldn't reproduce. Are you trying to claim you stare at pretty girls because your mind is as pure as fresh snow? Do we need to have a talk about where babies come from?"
Naruto turned a red that nicely commented the purple tint of the Uchiha brat. Jiraiya wasn't entirely certain why that one was coloring. Guilty conscience, perhaps? Lack of oxygen from a sudden inability to breathe?
'By all the kami, this Uzumaki is going to be an excellent student. She has the one thing her father lacked- a proper appreciation for the place erotica has in high culture.'
"But Aiko, he's sooo old!" Naruto blustered desperately, waving his hands. Annnd there went the last of his patience.
"Stop being such a disrespectful brat!" Jiraiya roared. He bopped Naruto on the head—not very hard, but enough to express his displeasure.
After Naruto was done smothering his sister and whimpering about a little love-tap, he'd turned to some sort of intricate awkward little boy 'I missed you but am too insecure to say so' dance with the grumpy little Uchiha that ended in a tussle in the dirt with Naruto pinned face-down in the dust. The scarily pale teen merely watched silently, thoughts completely hidden behind dark eyes. Jiraiya took the distraction as opportunity to quietly question Shizune-chan as to the details of what he had to do. What he learned wasn't really anymore encouraging than the little she'd communicated to him via slug. (Though convenient as a method of communication, slugs' poor short term memory made sharing complicated messages a Bad Idea).
Before things got any less intelligent, the group made their way into town proper to invade a noodle restaurant. The proprietor was visibly terrified by the large group of heavily armed ninja, so they seated Naruto at the end between his sister and Kakashi in the hopes that they could curb his enthusiasm.
It quickly became clear to Jiraiya that Hatake was Not Happy about something. He made the mistake of mentioning this to the woman on his right.
Shizune winced visibly, as if reliving several days of lecturing and Hatake's unique …well, let's call it charm. (He was the kung-fu master of passive aggressive bitchiness. Even Jiraiya knew that.)
He knew the feeling. Tsunade was not best pleased about this arrangement, even less so that (apparently) Hatake had possessed the gall to try to tell her he would be staying. He'd lost that battle, but had perhaps won the war. Apparently, Hatake had managed to teach some of that insolence (presumably so as to give Tsunade aneurisms far into the future).
Aiko had made the phenomenally inappropriate decision to calmly inform the Mizukage that she would not be party to sealing a tailed beast into an infant (and didn't that make Jiraiya feel like shit?) and so to expect a missive detailing the specifications she expected the new jinchuuriki to fit. She had dodged giving those specifications on the spot by saying that she would need to confer with Jiraiya first as he was more experienced. Jiraiya had been told to convince her to use an infant—their developing chakra systems made the jinchuuriki much more powerful and made the transition easier—but he wasn't sure if he had the heart to do it. It was possible to put a tailed beast into an adult, after all, and even Minato hadn't been certain he believed the benefits outweighed the fact that an infant could not possibly consent to a life-changing procedure. He'd been a big believer in self-determination.
Obviously, Minato had made his choice and done it anyway when he had needed to. But then again, Aiko had seen what it was like for a jinchuuriki to grow up around people who had been victimized by the beast they carried. He wasn't sure he wanted to start that conversation and hear what she had to say about how Naruto had grown up.
The hints he had were bad enough.
"Ah." He cleared his throat uncomfortably, figuring it would probably not be reassuring to tell Shizune that he agreed with Hatake about the wisdom of this endeavor. He had no expectations that Aiko would be able to manage this, largely because it was unwise to have any expectations at all before he had gauged the girl's aptitude and current abilities. "I'll take care of it, Shizune-chan. You can count on me."
Oh, hell. Jiraiya silently damned his chivalry, but he'd had to do something to wipe the sadness and stress lines off the girl's face.
Thus committed, the toad Sannin was anxious to find out what he was working with. He rushed through his meal as politely as possible, and then cleared his throat to catch attention. "Alright. Naruto, Aiko, say your goodbyes. We need to get to work."
Naruto pouted, but his sister was more businesslike. At least, he would have thought so until she went around the table passing out hugs, starting with her shishou and moving to Shizune before inflicting one on a suddenly very tense Sai. The Uchiha balked when she got to him, but she blinked down at him innocently as if he made no sense. Eventually, with a sigh he compromised with a handshake. The dweeb in the face plate snickered, until he got his own hug.
Jiraiya rolled his eyes. "Alright, that's enough." Effortlessly, he picked up a teenager in each hand and hoisted them up. Aiko was mildly surprised, but Naruto was resigned and hung limply.
"Bye everyone!" Naruto waved, getting half-hearted replies from the table before Jiraiya set off to the hotel where he'd reserved two rooms.
"Alright girl. Tell me what you know about seals."
The abrupt subject change seemed to take her off-guard, but she amicably and competently enough talked about core concepts and demonstrated proficiency in the standard language and sigils when he quizzed her. She had little to no theoretical knowledge about the higher level work that he and her parents had both practiced. That was what he'd expected, to be honest, but it would have been nice to be starting with more.
Naruto looked on blankly while Jiraiya heaved a sigh and slumped against the wall, hands in his pockets.
"Are there any useful similarities between sealing physical material and volumes of chakra?" The girl looked curious, but also mildly concussed. Maybe it was just her large, dreamy eyes and default expression. Jiraiya re-evaluated his earlier hypothesis that there was something creepy about her. The more he looked, the more she looked like her mind was a million miles away contemplating unicorns. That could explain the detachment, he supposed.
Still, the question wasn't a bad one.
"Very few," he admitted honestly. "It's going to be even more difficult because this seal is going to have to be adapted for non-human chakra. Luckily, your study materials here," he jerked his head towards a now-napping-Naruto, "will at least provide you with an example of demonic chakra so you can get a feel for what you'll be working with."
"I see." Aiko twisted a lock of hair around her fingers, and he had to blink away from the light it reflected into his face. "Will… Can this work?"
Jiraiya considered telling her a nice lie, like he had Shizune. But he shook his head. "I can't teach you the kind of mastery over seals it takes to understand and design a process like this in a month. I couldn't if you were the Sage of Six Paths, for crying out loud. But," he held up a finger to stop the slump of her shoulders, "I can teach you to fake it like the best of the Red Lantern District professionals. I will probably end up designing the seal you'll use and help you memorize it, as well as the most likely problems that could occur and how to recognize and deal with them. Mist isn't going to have anyone who will be able to tell the difference. So as long as nothing horrible and unforeseen happens, we're going to cheat like a Nara."
"Nara cheat so often?" she asked, sounding mildly amused.
He shook his head gravely. "The important thing isn't how often they cheat. It's that they cheat intelligently."
At least she had a good memory. Naruto was decidedly displeased about being left out of what was going on, so Jiraiya started him on learning the sigil set just to shut him up. Aiko proved to be a convenient study aide—all the whining he'd given Jiraiya died in his mouth when his sister raised an eyebrow at him.
Which was really unfair, he noted. Why would he listen to his sister and not his teacher? It defied logic.
________________________________________
I forgot to give a definition for a term last chapter—I'm not certain if it will come up again, but I thought that if I used it and only added this explanation to the last chapter, people could miss it and be confused later. So bear with me if you already know this.
Aiko referred to Yamato as a prospective 'Yamato Nadeshiko'. Yamato is actually a very old-fashioned term for a Japanese nationality (loosely speaking, as identity politics are actually rather complicated). 'Nadeshiko', on the other hand, is a certain type of flower. Together the connotation is that of an idealized Japanese woman, something like an English Rose or a Southern Belle. This term was used as a sort of center for a cult of femininity- a very specific type of femininity where women were supposed to be pretty (but modest), display familial loyalty (literally, by obeying parents, but also by things like continuing the family business and other traditions and by fighting for the family if necessary) and be skilled at domestic tasks. Aiko is making the joke that Kakashi is a traditional kind of guy and that Yamato needs to be a traditional kind of girl in order to get his attention. This is, of course, ridiculous. For many reasons (although don't take that to mean a male can never be 'Yamato Nadeshiko', this can happen although it is a bit subversive of the term's original intention).
The joke also comes up because the village of Nadeshiko (the all-female village from canon that I totally did not make up) entered in that chapter and I thought it was mildly amusing to continue variations on that theme. I know, I'm a total dweeb.

Chapter Text

"Man, this is awesome, 'ttebayo!" Naruto practically bounced around the room, waving his second successful seal in his grubby little fist. The first one had left a scorch on the hotel comforter that would never be repairable. Jiraiya silently kissed his deposit goodbye and decided to leave very early in the morning when it came time to skip town. In the meantime, he made a note to request that the maid service stopped.

"What did I tell you gaki?" He physically stopped the boy from fidgeting so much by grabbing his shoulders. Watching Naruto get excited made him feel incredibly tired. Had he ever had that much energy? "I've been telling you for months that fuinjutsu is a noble art!"

"Who cares about noble? That sounds so boring. Boom!"

He couldn't get too irritated, however, even as his apprentice cackled. Despite the fact that Aiko had been the one to bully Naruto into sitting down and learning the seal language, he was pretty pleased that he'd managed to get the boy at least mildly curious in the art. And she really had known how to speak his language—literally, they babbled at each other incomprehensibly whenever they ran into a difficult concept Aiko couldn't seem to explain in the way she had learned or if they got distracted and forgot he was there. It was altogether strange and humbling—where did they learn another language? He'd have to remember to ask, it didn't sound like anything he had ever heard.

It had probably been a terrible idea to teach a teenage boy how to make his own explosives, but he'd thought that type of seal had much more likelihood of actually holding Naruto's attention.

Lo, it was both terrible and great to behold. He gently pried the seal out of his apprentice's hands, already prepared to counter his protests. "Naruto, you're so excited that your chakra levels are wavering. If you're not careful, that's going to blow up in your hand, and then your sister will kill me."

Aiko gave a distracted grunt of acknowledgement, curled up in the same armchair where she had been for hours. Unlike her brother, she actually had a good attention span. (Then again, the comparison may not have been fair. She was under more pressure. When he'd put Naruto under pressure in past, the boy had always pulled through, whether it be the Rasengan, Shadow Clones, or learning to summon).

He had been expecting to get a much more academic student than the one he'd been working with for almost a year now. But despite Tsunade's notation that Aiko had been noted to be of above average intelligence, Jiraiya kept being surprised. If anything, Tsunade hadn't given the girl enough credit. She had taken to seals as a duck to water with an intense, unwavering focus and ability to intuitively piece concepts together. It was like she was working with a dictionary's worth of background knowledge ready to be applied to theoretical scenarios. It was uncanny. (Jiraiya took a moment to roll his eyes at himself for using ducks in a metaphor. He was starting to sound like sensei. Old coot had always loved birds.)

Her performance with some of the more technical and less imaginative aspects was less thrilling, however. She made simple mistakes in things like constructing an array that would filter chakra.

Well, he amended, it wasn't fair to call them 'simple' mistakes. The concepts she struggled with were still advanced ones, but the way that she breezed ridiculously high up in other areas made it hard to him to keep that perspective. She just couldn't seem to understand how to alter the array to take into account the nature of the chakra in use and in contact. He would have to teach her that by rote.

He had decided that with her chakra nature, it would be easiest for her to demand a jinchuuriki candidate with water-nature as well. She would only have to account for one nature translation that way. If needed, Mei could be fed some garbage about the Three-Tails being a water natured beast, but he didn't really care what she thought.

He'd sent a letter to that effect last week.

Naruto had actually coerced his sister into adding onto some of his silly letters. Jiraiya didn't see the point—she had seen most of their friends in Konoha less than a month ago, and she couldn't possibly want to write to that nutty Suna jinchuuriki or any of the friends Naruto had made along their trip so far. (Seriously, you can't take that kid anywhere without running into someone who he wanted to make his friend. If he didn't stop using the magic of friendship on every sad or troubled individual he met, he was going to have to spend more time writing letters than training.)

"I'm going out." Jiraiya pulled on his coat, tossing a look at the two teens over his shoulder. "You two hungry? I could bring something back, or you could actually venture out into the real world."

Naruto gave a longing look to his sister that she didn't seem to see. She had already turned her attention back to the book balanced on her knees and the notebook where she was taking notes with illustrations. "Food would be nice."

He stuck his lip out and pouted, but Naruto flopped back down on the other bed and bounced. "Yeah, bring us back food, ero-sennin!"

Jiraiya narrowed his eyes. 'Hard-working Aiko gets beef. Naruto is getting the driest chicken karaage I can find.'

It was hard to believe that Naruto still hadn't caught on to the way that Jiraiya passive-aggressively rewarded and punished him for disrespect. You would think that working under someone like Hatake would have taught him to at least spot it, even if he didn't want to alter his actions.

'Who am I kidding, Naruto is far too clueless.'

Aiko actually looked up, mildly startled, when the full grown man in the room burst into giggles before stumbling out the door. Naruto merely rolled his eyes. "The old guy does that sometimes." He kicked his feet against the singed bedcovers, then rolled over onto his stomach to make a grab for the remote to the antique television in the room.

She rolled her eyes and did her best to tune it out. Naruto loved those awful soaps.

In her past life, she must have been terrible at math. Just utterly abominable. Sometimes she felt a connection straining to be made and she was sure it meant that just beyond what she consciously remembered was a concept she had learned but forgotten. It was like having a word on the tip of her tongue. She felt like if she only scraped it against her teeth long enough it would come off and make sense.

But it never did.

Luckily, not all of sealing was analogous to math at all.

Naruto turned to stare at her. Aiko pretended not to notice, immersed as she was in what she was learning.
"Hey. Aiko."

She swallowed the sigh she wanted to heave and looked up, blinking away weariness. 'I can't be rude. It's not his fault I'm in over my head.' He was just excited to spend some time together after a year apart. There was nothing wrong with that, even if it did make it harder for her to do the studying she desperately needed to do.

"Yes, Naruto?"

He gave her a grin that she associated on some deep, primal level with the Grinch who stole Christmas. She recoiled. "I invented a totally new technique and kicked the pervert's ass with it. Wanna see?"

'My keen intuition tells me that this isn't going anywhere good.' She closed her book and stood, giving a stretch. "Sounds good. Should we go outside?" Okay, so she lied. But how could she tell him that she already knew most of the things he would learn?

He shook his head, flushing just a little bit across his cheeks. "Ah, no. I think it's better in here." He brought his hands up into a cross. "Sexy Jutsu!"

'And that went exactly where I expected it would.'

Except that it didn't. When the smoke cleared, it became frighteningly obvious that she wasn't looking at Naruko. She probably had an expression that would have looked more appropriate if she'd just been slapped with a fish, because Naruto giggled.
Or rather, the totally sexy seventeen year old version of herself did. Anko, eat your heart out and prepare to hand over your 'Sexy Kunoichi' title.

'Suddenly I care about my looks. I want to look like that.'

She felt her cheeks burn red, and she giggled. "That… That is just the best thing ever. I'm super flattered."
SexyAiko cooed, posing cutely. "Mou, you really think so?"

"Yeah." Aiko strode over to examine the facsimile from different angles. "Although this is definitely intended to appeal more to a male heterosexual gaze. Is that intentional? It's not accurate, and it could stand some refinement."

Naruto puffed back into himself with a pout and a baffled expression. "What do you mean? This version is perfect! I worked on it for hours!"

She shook her head. "Ah, never mind." As long as she didn't go nuts and get any extra ribs implanted, she wouldn't end up with the oddities of Naruto's Sexy Jutsu anyway. (and if she got to that point, she undoubtedly had bigger things to worry about, like her traumatic brain injury that led to decreased judgment).

________________________________________

He had to stop for a moment to gape. Shizune blinked dumbly and lowered her arm guard as if to check that he really had cracked it in half. Then she gave a shriek.

"Ah! You did it!"

Sasuke normally tried to go with 'stoic' or at least 'strong and silent', but he couldn't help but crack a positive facial expression. (Even in the comfort of his mind he couldn't call it a grin.) "I did it," he said with no small amount of satisfaction.

Granted, he hadn't intended to at that moment. He had simply slipped into the action he had been practicing nonstop lately. Tsunade had taught him the theory behind her augmented strength, but warned that it would take years for him to be able to utilize it to the fullest potential. Strength augmentation wasn't unique to Tsunade, but the heights that she took it to were.
Still, he was fairly proud of his first successful usage. Sasuke was sure that now that he knew what it felt like, he could replicate the circulation and alteration in his limbs.

He was actually pleased enough that he didn't react in time to Shizune's exuberant hug. Sasuke instantly stiffened, fighting two instinctive urges.

The first urge was to use the substitution technique with a cactus.

The second urge was to go for the throat with a kunai.

But… he did like Shizune-senpai passably. And she was just caught up in the moment. But. He did have standards of behavior to uphold. He could not let her think that her behavior was appropriate or desirable.

"This isn't going to be an everyday thing," Sasuke warned darkly.

Shizune laughed in his ear and let him go. "Only on special occasions. I promise. Chya, that was wonderful timing! Were you saving that until the last minute before I had to go?"

He hadn't been, but he gave her a smirk that let her read whatever she wanted into his expression.

Aside from the fact that he had been drafted to cat-sit, all was going well. (and he was still a little taken aback that Karin had been bold enough to assume that he wouldn't mind, only telling him at the last minute because apparently 'the pet-sitters are so expensive it should be a crime, I wouldn't pay them if everyone else in the world were dead. Right, Smaug?' *angry meow* )
Though he liked cats in general and as a concept experienced from a distance and perhaps photographs, he wasn't pleased about that particular feline. There was something seriously wrong with it.

Sasuke didn't have the heart to tell Karin no, though he made clear it was just this once. Not for her own sake, but because he actually felt a little pity for Hinata, who would doubtlessly be the one to find a cat-caretaker if he didn't agree. Even if he hadn't worked in the Hokage's office and heard about every stupid thing that happened until he thought he would vomit, Sasuke would have known that something was seriously wrong with Hyuuga Hinata and her family.

Or rather, wrong with Hinata, as she had reneged completely on her name. She'd seemed a little surprised that her family was fighting her decision so hard, but they had no legal recourse to prevent her from leaving. If the clan head had been anyone other than Hyuuga Hiashi, Sasuke might have thought it was his inept way of proving that he wanted her to stay in the family.
As it was in fact, the notoriously unpleasant man in question, Sasuke rather thought that Hiashi was trying to cow his wayward daughter into obedience by frightening her with all the terrible things she would have to agree to.

She must have been prepared, because in the hearing where Sasuke had taken notes (Tsunade couldn't be bothered to attend such a farce) Hinata had shown a hundred times more spine than he'd ever imagined she could have. Hiashi must have regretted discarding the girl as useless—she looked more like an impassive, powerful leader than he did when he threatened her with a list of repercussions (and rapidly generating ability at faking impassivity), long past the point where it was obvious she already knew. It must be unpleasant to know your child is that desperate to get away from you.

Yes, she was aware that she could never have biological children.

Yes, she was aware that she would have no last name unless she chose one for herself.

Yes, she was aware that she was legally bound to keep all the secrets of the Hyuuga and could not pass them along to students she might take.

Yes, she had something to add for the record. "Fuck you." A pause. "Thank you for your time, Hyuuga-san."

Sasuke had to look up for a moment and briefly contemplate if the literal insult was more biting than referring to her father by his last name and an insufficient title. Ouch.

Anko and Karin had broken out into thoroughly inappropriate clapping and hooting at that point, accompanied by surprised laughter from Kiba and near simultaneous face-palms from Kurenai and Shino. She had a pretty good cheering section, actually.
For the first time, he deigned to acknowledge her as a person beyond the social niceties when she had returned to file her final declaration paperwork the next day. She'd flushed tomato red and bit her lip before leaning into whisper, "I-I'd been practicing that for weeks."

Unfortunately, he seemed to be just about the only one outside her circle of friends who was impressed. Granted, most people didn't care. But he'd actually seen her spat at on the street by Branch Clan members (baffling, shouldn't they emphasize with her?) and noted that she didn't have many fans in the traditionalist sects of town either.

Morons. It was all well and good to say that one should be loyal to their clan, but if someone from the clan wronged you, then you had every right to retaliate. Hinata only had one form of recourse.

It was just as well that the only all-female team in the village had been designated to be Shizune's escort to Nadeshiko. Hinata needed to get out of town.

Although he saw the value in it now, that assignment had frankly perplexed him when Tsunade had talked through it. Did they really only have one female team? They weren't even an official unit, for crying out loud. Sasuke could think of three all-male units off the top of his head, plus the one that had the disturbingly masculine and uncouth Ino in it. (Sasuke had been raised to think that ladies didn't scream and hit people all the time, no matter how infuriating Shikamaru was. Well-bred people could keep their temper in check, ladies especially. If they had to retaliate, they would do so calmly and with sufficient severity to insure the problem would no longer continue.)

________________________________________
"We're almost fourteen," Naruto pointed out idly, five days before Aiko had to go back to Mist.

Understandably, she was preoccupied. Jiraiya had drawn up the exact seal she would be using and she had felt Naruto's own demonic chakra until she was certain she knew she could slap down the translation signals at the right frequency. With the seal memorized, all she really had to do was be prepared for anything that could go wrong.

That was surprisingly not soothing.

The most frustrating part was that Aiko was certain she almost understood what was going on. If she had just a little more time, she would be able to put together the pieces that she was reading into a coherent whole.

But the point was moot, as she already had been notified that Mei would be sending an escort to meet her. Mist was still insistent about not having Jiraiya in the village, and Tsunade had to agree after they pointed out what he'd done the last time he had been there. There was doubtlessly a great story there, but no one was telling it to Aiko.

Still, something very strange had to be going on. Why would Konoha let her go there without a friendly escort? Okay, Mist was supposedly friendly, she knew, but not in any real sense. She had to be missing something very important, and it nagged at her.
"Aiko?"

She came back to the real world with a start, rubbing her face with her free hand. "Sorry, I got distracted."

It was hard to care about her birthday when she would be doing the riskiest thing of her life to date on October sixth.
"What do you want to do?" He stood on the bed and bounced idly, reaching his fingers up to scrape at the ceiling. Little flakes of something white fluttered down to litter the bedcovers. She made a face.

Naruto incorrectly interpreted her expression, stopping his movements to point at her. It might have been more imposing if he hadn't been still bouncing slightly from the momentum he had accumulated. "Don't say you don't want to do anything! We can celebrate tonight. I bet there's lots of stuff to do here, in scenic… Where are we, again?"

Aiko shrugged. She had no idea, frankly. Jiraiya liked to move them around a lot, and she'd been rather distracted.

Naruto steamrolled past that potential problem with his usual brand of nonchalant bravado. "Let's go already?"
"Alright, alright," she sighed, heaving herself to her feet. She had barely left the books for a month and a half. Maybe she should get some sun. Her performance might be better if she were relaxed than if she crammed