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Keep the Wolves from the Gates

Chapter Text

“Iruka-sensei!”

Iruka’s ability to gauge the situation based solely on the intensity of Naruto’s enthusiasm bordered on preternatural, so he was out of his seat and ready to body-flicker within the next instance.

Then Naruto appeared in the doorway, and the source of his glee became obvious.

“Where did you get that?” Iruka demanded, trying to incinerate the photograph in Naruto’s hands with his eyes. He knew the picture far too well, and had actually entertained a fool’s hope that all copies had been destroyed. He was about twelve in it, with his hair loose and damp, glaring upwards at Kakashi when he had noticed the camera – too late to dodge out of the shot.

“I knew it! I knew you’d have passed for a girl. You looked like a girl!” Naruto exclaimed, before he noticed the raincloud forming over Iruka’s head. “Uh… but… a very pretty girl? I mean, not as pretty as H-haku…” He paused; something dark flickered in his eyes before he blinked it away and continued with the embarrassed reassurance: “But… pretty.”

“Naruto…” Iruka growled, but he left it at that. The boy wasn’t teasing him – in fact, Iruka had no clue to whom he had been compared (after he had dismissed the puppy as an option), but he had the idea that the comparison itself was a compliment. Naruto seemed just genuinely fascinated, and he had never been good at filtering what he should and should not say out loud. “Where did you get this?”

He was sure that he knew the answer, although there was a slight chance that the Sandaime might have been in possession of the picture too, probably for blackmail-related purposes.

Naruto’s face was an answer enough.

Iruka raised one hand to stave off the impending avalanche of dissembling babble and put the other one on his hip. “Now, let’s talk just retribution. You did notice that you were set up, right?”

Naruto shrugged. “I knew he was doing something, but I didn’t figure out what until you looked mad, and it seemed worth it at the time?”

Iruka smirked. “I think he was trying to manipulate us into starting a prank war-”

Probably to keep people’s attention on them so Kakashi could go behind the scenes and do something underhanded while remaining unnoticed. Well, if he wanted their help, he should have asked.

“-and forgot that he might be motivating two top notch pranksters to unite against him.”

Naruto squinted. “Err… Iruka-sensei, I know we’re good enough not to get caught, but he’ll still know it was us.”

Iruka shrugged. “Does it matter?”

The boy gaped. “Does it matter?! He’s not going to hurt you, sensei, but he’s my Team Lead! You know how much pain I’d be in?” He tilted his head. “Or, wait, is this what ‘masochism’ means?”

Iruka froze. “Now, Naruto, where did you learn that word?”

He was going to have a talk with Anko.

x

“Look, you’re barking up the wrong tree here,” Anko said, filing her nails. “Take a bit of unsolicited advice – the chibi’s not really the right outlet for your newly discovered mothering instinct.”

Mot-thering…?” Iruka stuttered. He wasn’t mothering! He was acting like a responsible adult!

Anko looked at him skeptically. Since she had been freed of Orochimaru’s seal there was an odd lightness around her, and one of its (at the moment regrettable) side-effects was that she started occasionally coming out of her shell.

“Stop and think,” she said. “How old is Naruto? What were you like at his age?” ‘What was I like?’ she didn’t add, but Iruka could hear it in the expectant silence.

It was hard to admit, but at thirteen Naruto was grown up enough and knowledgeable enough to not only know the word ‘masochism’, but also have a fairly good idea of its meaning. And Iruka knew that Anko wasn’t the one to teach that to Naruto.

Iruka kept forgetting that Naruto wasn’t really a child anymore. And thirteen honestly was not that young (Iruka himself at thirteen had already begun falling in love). Thinking back, he suspected that Naruto had had a disturbingly good idea about the adult ongoings from a far too young age (the strategy behind the application of his Oiroke no Jutsu required at least rudimentary understanding of lust), but there was no telling what he might have been exposed to while living partially on the streets.

Iruka should have realised all this when Naruto matter-of-factly requisitioned a particular ANBU for a seduction assignment. And then again when he misled Tsunade-sama into assuming that there was an intimate relationship between the two male Sannin.

It was a well-observed fact that those gennin teammates who survived until later in their career tended to either pursue romantic relationships together, or feel like any such relationship would be incestuous and inherently wrong. It was a dynamic Naruto had observed, too, and capitalised on when he developed the strategy for their mission in Tanzaku Gai.

Iruka was impressed. A little regretful for the untimely death of innocence, but impressed. Besides, this was Naruto. He would probably retain that air of innocence for the rest of his life.

“Yeah…” Anko drawled, having watched the entire thought process on his face. “You owe me a Dango Deluxe Family Pack. And a sparring session. I’m getting rusty with the basics. You’re welcome.”

Iruka nodded in thanks. “Anko-san, by any chance, do you have any insights into what Naruto might like as a present for getting promoted?”

Anko blinked at him. Then her eyes darkened and unfocused-

-and Iruka beat a hasty retreat before he learnt another thing about his former student that he never wanted to know.

x

“…and crash-pow! It is just a Bunshin! I hit the wall, but I do much wall-bouncing during my youthful training, so now I merely bounce back! I run for the other Shikamaru-kun at the top of my speed!”

Hinata was having a very odd dream. Everything was dark and soft, and an excited voice was telling her about a ninja fight.

“I jump! I kick! But lo! Shikamaru-kun is faster than he looks! He twists and weaves, for he is secretly a master of the Drunken Fist!”

Hinata wanted to giggle. Everything felt pleasantly floaty, and the story was fun.

“I must stop and praise him! I had no idea there was a master of such a splendid technique among my fellow contestants! Alas! As I stand still for an instance, Shikamaru-kun’s shadow has me in its grasp! Kagemane no Jutsu – success!” The speaker loudly blew his nose. “Shikamaru-kun is so hip!”

Hinata realised that everything seemed so dark because her eyes were closed. Opening them took more energy than she usually needed for handstand push-ups, but she succeeded.

“Thus I lose!” exclaimed a black and green blob that Hinata identified as her cousin’s teammate. Lee-san thumped his fist against his chest as though he were declaiming to an invisible audience. “For the Drunken Fist master is also a Bunshin! And the true Shikamaru-kun has remained hidden from my sight until now!”

Hinata wasn’t used to not having perfect eyesight. She tried to mold chakra, but couldn’t get even the slightest bit of control. Her Byakugan was inactive, her tenketsu dormant. She was in a hospital room, though, so she did not panic… yet.

Surely someone would explain?

Just as she thought it, Lee-san heaved a heavy sigh, pirouetted-

And noticed Hinata looking at him.

For an instance he remained frozen in shock, and then a wide, bright smile stretched over his face. “Hinata-san! You are awake! Please, remain calm, I will get a medic right away!”

x

Long acquaintance with Kakashi taught Iruka to not only treat but also subconsciously regard ninken as people. He wasn’t sure if it was the result of being considered Pack, or if they considered him Pack because of this mindset. He had never been officially Presented, but he had also not been treated like an outsider in years by any of the few canine members to whom he had been introduced.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” he said to the couple that occupied a patch of grass next to him. He had chosen the park as a neutral and yet comfortable place for them to meet, and there were several food stalls nearby, so he could make good on his invitation to dinner. If they preferred their meat raw, he was sure he could make a deal with the proprietor of the grill.

“It is about time, sensei,” said Kana-san. “We should be catching up on years’ worth of parent-teacher conferences.”

Iruka chuckled. “That is part of why I kept asking Naruto for an introduction.” He met first Kana-san’s eye and then Ya-san’s. “I wanted to thank you. For taking care of him when we failed him so badly.”

“We didn’t do it for gratitude,” replied Kana-san.

“And far as I can tell, you were one of the few humans Naruto could count on,” Ya-san pointed out.

Iruka guessed it might have seemed so. He had done his best, in the end – he had been Naruto’s teacher, and he had always accepted the responsibility inherent in that position. He liked to believe that he had done well enough.

But that did not somehow erase the memory of hating Naruto for years. He would carry that stain on his soul for the rest of his life.

“Well,” Ya-san spoke after a while of reflection, sardonically amused, “now that the formalities are out of the way, how about you tell us what prompted this meeting, Iruka-sensei?”

Iruka sighed. Busted.

“I – it occurred to me that I have not properly congratulated Naruto on his promotion. I would like to give him a gift and… well… I am out of ideas.”

The two ninken shared a long look over their respective glasses – the kind of look through which old married couples could carry entire conversations. Iruka watched them with mounting jitters.

Eventually Ya-san chuffed a laugh.

Kana-san resignedly shook her head. “Humans…”

x

“Ooh, supplies?” Naruto inquired when Iruka presented a basket full of food and drinks.

There wasn’t nearly enough food there to truly sate the hunger of a growing boy with a demon in his belly, but it would have to suffice for a picnic.

“Wait, this doesn’t look like much of a prank…?”

“I’ve already misused the power of my office to set up the prank,” Iruka replied blithely.

“Which of your offices?”

Iruka ignored the sarcasm. “And let’s leave revenge on your sensei to a time when I’m not bogged down with paperwork. I just thought we could eat outside,” he dissembled. “The weather is nice.”

The truth was a little bleaker. He had wanted to invite Naruto to his home. Sadly, Naruto’s sense of smell meant that no amount of tidying up and careful scene arrangement would disguise the fact that there were two people living there, or what they were to each other.

He was already uncomfortable just with Naruto knowing that Iruka had someone.

“This is different,” Naruto remarked, but let himself be led to a grassy slope usually populated by families. “You know, not that long ago all these people would scream and pull their kids away if they saw me here. It’s like the hitai-ate is magic.”

Oh, Iruka thought. He hadn’t even thought of that. He was so used to seeing Naruto automatically accepted among ninja that he had momentarily forgotten how the civilians might react.

Despite the initial reprieve from any histrionics, Naruto still cast a minor Henge – hiding the marks on his cheeks, turning his hair brown and his t-shirt sky-blue, just enough of a change to make it unlikely that any civilian would recognise him and start a riot.

“I’m sorry about that,” Iruka professed. He was sorrier than he could explain without admitting to how much he used to despise the mere sight of Naruto – long ago, before he had even learnt Naruto’s name. Before Kakashi had looked at Iruka so coldly and nearly walked out of his life. “And I’m glad it’s getting better.”

“You’re making me nervous, sensei,” Naruto joked, except that it really wasn’t a joke.

Iruka didn’t mean to do that. This was supposed to be a happy occasion. “Naruto… there’s something I’ve been meaning to give to you for a while, but there just hasn’t been a good opportunity.” With how busy Iruka had been, and then the mission, and then preparations for the Inauguration, which also somehow turned out to be his responsibility – today was the first free afternoon he had had in more than six weeks.

He felt like if he let himself, he could close his eyes and instantly drop to sleep.

Naruto plopped down into the grass without waiting for Iruka to spread the blanket. He was right – the blanket was a childish cliché. Iruka resolved to keep it inside the storage seal where it belonged. Maybe he was trying too hard to play at a normal family – they weren’t normal. They were shinobi.

As Iruka sat down, the boy side-eyed him skeptically. “Uh… it’s not the Talk, right, sensei? ‘cause I’ve had that. Three times, from five different people, and by now it’s not even embarrassing anymore. And I ask questions. Like, personal questions. About the Talk-giver’s personal experience-”

Iruka snorted. “Alright, alright! You convinced me! Stop convincing. No, I know I’m years too late to give you the Talk, and I’m not really inclined to share my personal anecdotes on this subject. Except maybe the one about that one time… hm…” He thoughtfully rubbed his mouth.

He had more than one truly educational – and cautionary – tale that he could relay at least in very broad strokes. Kakashi had the unfortunate tendency to take Icha Icha as a series of dares, and Iruka had the even more unfortunate tendency to go along with it whenever the premise didn’t seem outright dangerous.

There was, for just a random example, that time with the Hokage’s desk. And the well-disguised ANBU guard.

x

Grr. Iruka-sensei knew exactly how to make people hunger for whatever information he had to impart. He was a born teacher.

“Another time!” announced the super-sensei, smirking at Naruto’s frustrated growling. “Today is the day for gift giving, not for sharing confidences.”

“Gift? Uh, Iruka-sensei, my birthday is in October-”

“And I am perfectly aware of that, thanks.” That gave Naruto a pause, but Iruka-sensei didn’t say it meanly, so he guessed it probably wasn’t an accusation.

There was a reason why Naruto didn’t celebrate his birthday. And why other people celebrated with food and games and fireworks, but made it clear that Naruto himself wasn’t invited. And, well, Naruto knew how Iruka-sensei’s parents died. So. The topic was kind of a taboo.

“But, I realised that we haven’t celebrated your promotion! I didn’t mean to let that pass without acknowledgement-”

“You were busy!” Naruto protested. His sight blurred; he was about to start bawling. Iruka-sensei was acknowledging him! Again!

“That is no excuse!” Iruka-sensei protested back. “So, here is something for you. I hope it will help you in your career.”

It was a book. This could have gone one of two ways – Iruka-sensei was a teacher, so it was likely something educational, but he was also the co-owner of Dog-sensei’s Icha Icha collection and friends with Anko, so it might have been something educational.

“Fuuinjutsu?” Naruto read, startled.

“This is…” Iruka-sensei rubbed the back of his head. “Well, Yondaime-sama was famous for his work with seals. A prodigy! And so was the whole Uzumaki Clan. I am almost certain that you have an as-of-yet undiscovered talent for this, and it would be a crime to not let it develop.”

Naruto’s eyes welled. “Thanks, sensei…”

“Yeah, it’s a fucking crime nobody thought to start you on seals earlier, but see my utter lack of surprise. The Toad Sage would actually have to do something that didn’t involve his dick-”

“Anko-san?!”

Appearing seemingly out of nowhere like the ANBU she was, Anko-nee-san rolled her eyes and fell upon the food basket like a swarm of locusts. “You forgot to invite me to this shindig, doggy treat, so I invited myself. Think I don’t wanna celebrate? Let’s get chuunin-chan good and proper drunk-”

“Let’s not,” Iruka hissed through clenched teeth.

Anko gulped down an onigiri and pouted. “Party pooper. Oh, fine. Naruto, put on a pretty face, and let’s go to town! I’m buying you some cool shit you can use to fuck up people while looking like-”

Knowing exactly where nee-san was going with this, Naruto oiroked into Naruko the trophy wife.

“-yeah, that.”

x

“Just figures,” Kiba-kun complained, walking through the doorway. “We spend every free moment at Hinata’s bedside, and she wakes up during Lee’s summertime of manly youthfulness monologue-”

“Can you imagine a better incentive to escape?” Shino-kun inquired a little unkindly.

In Hinata’s opinion Lee-san was friendly and enthusiastic, and if he sometimes required a little more energy to communicate with, it was hardly a great bother. She had never had the opportunity to befriend him, but he was nice enough to come visit his teammate’s cousin and speak to her regularly ever since Manami-sensei told him it helped people in coma wake up.

Hinata wished Lee-san had stayed long enough for her to thank him. There was a bouquet of wildflowers in a vase on the bedside, too, and Hinata was sure no one in her family had brought those. And – she glanced at her teammates – she doubted it had been either of them. Despite the fact that Shino-kun’s kikaichu had already found the flowers and were scouring them for nectar, even though they could only truly feed on raw chakra.

“It is good to know you are on the mend,” Shino-kun said simply, arms folded in front of his chest.

Kiba-kun stepped from foot to foot a few times and then huffed. “Whatever. Hey, Hinata, took your time waking up, huh? You can’t keep skipping team training like this…”

Hinata opened her mouth to apologise, and then realised that Kiba-kun didn’t mean it. He wasn’t admonishing her. He had been worried and, being a shinobi, he probably felt like he should not admit it. That was – nice.

Hinata smiled. Her teammates had been worried about her.

“We were going to avenge you, but it’s been impossible! We can’t get into the Hyuuga District, and your cousin barely shows his face in public except for team training-”

“He has become reticent after his verbal emasculation in the final stage of the examinations, courtesy of Naruto-san,” Shino-kun explained with a smirk.

“Oh.”

Naruto-kun… well, Naruto-kun would not be the boy he was – the boy she admired so – if he did not stand up for his friends against those who hurt them…

But Hinata hadn’t wanted this. Hadn’t wanted anything like this. She thought if people saw how strong Neji-nii-san was (so much stronger than her!), and acknowledged his strength, maybe things would get a little better for him. She didn’t have any way of undoing the Caged Bird Seal, but short of that she wanted him to have the same chances as if he were her full brother.

“Don’t make that face! He deserved everything he got and more!”

Hinata shook her head so rapidly that her muscles began to hurt. She sank deeper into the pillows and breathed for a moment, until the effects of the drugs dulled the discomfort again. “Please don’t judge him, Kiba-kun, Shino-kun. Neji-nii-san’s life – it is not a happy one. There was so much injustice, and some of it because of me-”

“If he blames you,” exclaimed Kiba-kun, “he’s not just a butthole – he’s a stupid butthole!”

Hinata flinched. Her sight blurred with tears. “K-kiba-k-kun-”

“Sorry, sorry,” Kiba-kun waved his hands, as if he could just fan the tension out of the room. “I won’t yell. I’ll try not to yell. He just makes me so mad!”

“Neji-san is a stronger fighter than you,” Shino said evenly, “but your fight did not prove his strength. The only thing he displayed was lack of control.”

“Yeah,” Kiba-kun agreed, “he was emoting all over the place, monologuing like a crazy, didn’t even concentrate, and when Naruto kicked his arse he fell apart like a complete loon. He’s whacko, Hinata!” He noticed he had raised his voice again and scowled. “Crap, sorry! Crap. Can I just…?”

Hinata did not understand what Kiba-kun’s gesture meant, but it was obvious that he needed whatever it was he had asked for. So she nodded.

He startled her by sitting on the bed and slowly, carefully winding his arm in between Hinata’s shoulders and the pillow. She found herself pulled against the solid, warm body of her teammate, close enough to smell boy-sweat and dogs, but the smell was familiar rather than repellent. Still she couldn’t help tensing.

“Am I- am I hurting you?”

“N-no…” she admitted. No one had ever held her like this – at least not that she remembered. Perhaps Okaa-san might have, but that would have been a very long time ago.

“It’s…” Kiba-kun huffed and tried to hide his reddening face. “It’s a pack thing. A… comfort sort of thing. For dogs. And us. I mean the Clan – the Inuzuka Clan. We – we need physical contact.”

Hinata bit the inside of her cheek. It was quite enough that Shino-kun was laughing at Kiba-kun unabashedly. Besides, now that she was becoming accustomed to the idea, the closeness and warmth felt comforting to her, too.

x

“…yeah, makes sense,” Anko admitted. “You know I only ask for the pretty face ‘cause I’m wet for the-”

“Anko-san!” Iruka hissed, and glanced at the keeper of the store they just entered.

The man’s eyes zeroed in on the second customer that walked through the door, discovered the display of Anko’s plentiful assets and got stuck. He didn’t appear to even notice the third person entering after her.

“I’ll give you a private show later, if you’d like,” Naruto whispered into her ear (although he had to stand on his toes to get anywhere near, and Anko wasn’t very tall).

At times like these Iruka wished he could turn off his hearing.

“Yeah, we’re picking a weapon for you, not for Naruko-chan,” agreed Anko. “For her I’ve got a very nice switch-”

Luckily, Anko quickly got distracted with all the sharp implements in Kamakura’s shop, while Iruka made it a point to stay by Naruto’s side. He kept half an eye on the proprietor; so far Iruka hadn’t detected any animosity, what with the lust that seemed to have completely turned off the man’s higher cognitive functions.

A brief brainstorming session between the three of them proved that neither had any concrete idea about what kind of weapon Naruto might like to start learning, so eventually it was decided that they would just have a look around and maybe inspiration would strike.

Iruka personally suspected that Naruto would walk out with a chokuto or a kodachi, but he wasn’t going to try and influence the boy’s decision.

“Sensei…?” Naruto said wonderingly, waking Iruka from the reverie.

The boy was standing in front of the display counter in the most shadowed corner of the shop. There were weird bits and pieces scattered within the display, some of which Iruka couldn’t name. He couldn’t even imagine how some of them worked.

And in the middle of that heap of steel and obsidian and glass lay the thing.

Naruto picked it up and put it on his hand. It fit almost perfectly – he would grow out of it in a year, since it was designed for a woman’s hand, but perhaps the size could be adjusted as needed?

“Huh,” Iruka mused. Then he grinned. This was going to be good. “A cat paw, huh?”

Naruto’s horrified look made Iruka wish he had thought to take a camera with him. For a brief moment it seemed as though Naruto would rip off the neko-te and throw it as far away from himself as possible.

Then he proved that he could be rational even about his antipathies (not that Iruka truly doubted this, after Naruto managed to work mostly professionally with Sasuke, Sakura and Jiraiya-sama).

Naruto attempted to manipulate the neko-te, feeling how it handled, clicking the long claw-points together. Then he whined. “It’s perfect, Iruka-sensei! I would love that, but no self-respecting guy would use a cat-based weapon! How would I look my huntmates in the eye? Urgh!”

“So… it’s not a problem that it’s a kunoichi weapon?” inquired the shopkeeper, lured away from his Anko-inspired reverie by the vision of profit.

“Ehh? Why would it be?” Naruto blinked in perfect (and perfectly artificial) innocence. “It’s a weapon.” Then he narrowed his eyes, as though a suspicion just occurred to him. “Wait, are you one of those people?”

“What people?”

“Oh, boy. I think I need Anko-nee-san for this explanation-”

“Ah, no, that’s okay!” the shopkeeper assured him hastily, waving his hands, palms-out and smiling so widely his cheeks must have cramped. “I’ve changed my mind. You’ve convinced me – great, neko-te, sure, go for it, shinobi-san!”

“Wow,” Naruto muttered to Iruka, “a threat of Anko works even better than Rikku showing off his teeth…”

And how Iruka wished this peaceful, kind village hadn’t made it necessary for Naruto to use his ninken’s intimidating effect to be treated semi-fairly.

Naruto seemed to take it all with good humour, though. “He’s just scared ‘cause Anko-nee wouldn’t even need a big, manly sword to skewer him.” He paused and then added: “And make him like it.”

Iruka suppressed a groan. Anko was creating a monster. He momentarily regretted that his professional persona was so demure; then he recalled that usually he wasn’t in the middle of political work on an insanely stressful level. He loved working with children – when he actually had the chance to work with children – and the self-censorship was well worth it.

Besides, in those halcyon times when his stress was down at the usual ‘moderately high’ level of the Academy, he hadn’t felt the need to vent so much.

He clasped his favourite ex-student’s shoulder. “I think you should take it, Naruto. With your taijutsu, that would be a devastating supplement.” He could already see it: gushing blood and guts spewing all around. Not exactly a nice or clean fighting style, but terribly, terribly effective.

And it was an old, traditional kunoichi weapon, barely even used anymore – obscure and vicious to Anko’s tastes, and immensely practical for Naruto’s undercover (almost universally female) personas.

Naruto, encouraged by Iruka’s approval, nodded. “Yeah, I think this is it.”

Chapter Text

Tsunade-sama’s term would officially start on the day of the Inauguration.

Iruka didn’t dare even guess how long it would take before she was in charge factually as well as nominally – he and Kakashi had been forced to take over the administration immediately and without any initial instruction, and he hoped to spare Godaime-sama the struggle. In any case, to avoid future contestations of authority, Iruka had to lay the preparations for his plans within the next two days. Three on the outside.

He spent thirteen hours straight drafting and approving assignments and missions, leaving the deadlines blank and feeling just a little bit like a fraud. None of what he did was technically illegal, but only by virtue of the near all-power of his position.

He put a practiced henohenomoheji on the last sheet, stamped it, bound all the papers together, put them into a blood-sealed box and took them home.

Then he went to place an order of a dozen carts’ worth of sake, because a good Hokage’s aide foresaw future problems and prevented them before they could impede the smooth running of the village.

x

The one advantage of being the Acting Hokage was that Kakashi didn’t have to defend his pick of a team. He needed a team, of course – how else would he operate in the Fire-Wind territory while a war might break out any day?

“Why not Shikamaru, though?” asked Iruka, with that adorable wrinkle on his forehead that made Kakashi want to kiss him until the wrinkle smoothed out and he forgot what he was fretting about.

Kakashi could have just signed and stamped his own request, of course, but there were many and varied reasons to listen and answer to Iruka. Not the least of which was that a second opinion might uncover some gaps in his plan. Theoretically. So he presented his reasoning: “I am a tactical genius – I don’t need another one on my team. And he’s a Clan Heir. We only send those to the frontlines when we don’t like their parents. Or them.”

Iruka rolled his eyes. “Not a single diplomatic bone in your body.”

There was a reason why Iruka eventually agreed to switch off on the negotiations. Iruka also probably knew that Kakashi had made zero headway on purpose, to showcase his failure and thus get out of all future negotiations. It was a tactic that had served him well in the past, and he only needed to convince Tsunade, who didn’t know him well enough to see through his bullshit just yet.

“Genma,” Kakashi segued. Genma was the designated diplomatic type of the new Team Kakashi. They had to have one level-headed person on the team to do all the face-palming. “And I need a medic more than I need a woman-”

“Why not request a female medic?” Iruka pointed out logically.

“-and anyway Naruto can be a better woman than most of the kunoichi I know.” Next to Anko, Tsume, Yoshino or Sakura, undercover-Naruto was a paragon of female grace. “Because Yakushi’s policy to make peacetime field assignments voluntary means there are none available.”

Iruka looked over the roster again. “What did you bribe Nishi-sensei with?”

“Chance of promotion. He’s qualified. If he successfully completes five B- to A-ranks, he’ll make tokujo.”

“And how will you swing that with Tsunade-sama in the office?” Iruka inquired. There was no hint of doubt, no accusation of manipulation – only curiosity.

Kakashi grinned under his mask. “I already did the paperwork. It’s all signed – pending five attached mission reports. Don’t look at me like that, sensei – he was up for that promotion years ago, just hates the hospital politics and couldn’t be bothered to suck up to Yakushi.”

Iruka sighed. “Fine. Take your stacked team of non-conformists. Just don’t start a war, please.” He looked worried.

There was no need for worry. Kakashi wasn’t his Father. Even if something he did sparked this barrel of gunpowder to blow, he wouldn’t kill himself over it.

“The objective is to prevent the war. And, if worse comes to worst, we’ll just take over Suna and annex Wind as well.” He blithely disregarded the presence of an entire country between Fire and Wind. Although, to tell the truth, he didn’t doubt that Rivers would welcome being turned into Fire’s province over the alternative at that point. No one liked their backyard randomly becoming a battlefield.

Besides, it wasn’t like Konoha couldn’t stomp Suna into the ground and dance around its flaming ruins. That’s what Suna got for tolerating a Kage who killed off his own best shinobi in fear of being usurped.

But, apparently, Konoha were the pathetic tree-huggers. Some people – even very powerful people – did not have even a passing acquaintance with logic.

Iruka just sighed at him again.

x

The last meeting of Team Seven did not start auspiciously.

Naruto was a little late, because he had gone for a run with his hunt beforehand; he had the lap around the inner side of the Wall timed down to the minute, but he had completely forgotten to account for Haku-chan’s short legs. They had to slow down for the puppy in the beginning; soon enough Haku got too tired to go any further, and Naruto carried him the rest of the way, but they didn’t make up for the initial delay.

He checked the time – it was just five minutes past, so there was no chance on earth of Kakashi-sensei being anywhere in the vicinity. Naruto was, however, treated to one of Sakura’s gentle admonishments.

You’re late!”

Naruto tilted his head to the side. So did Juuji and Annai, copying him (for no other reason than because they had noticed it freaked people out – and he loved them a little bit more for it).

There was something wrong with this picture.

Then Sasuke, seated lotus-style at the foot of the bridge railing, smirked under his mess of a fringe, and everything became clearer: Sakura must have taken his threat seriously and toned down the screeching.

Huh. Naruto didn’t think it would actually happen. But just this once a good thing came to the one who had been waiting.

“Saa,” Naruto said. “Had to save a puppy-”

“Liar!” This time the shout was louder, but it still fell short of ear-rending.

Naruto stared at her for a while and then mutely lifted the puppy in his arms as a solid proof that he was telling the truth. How had she not noticed Haku-chan? Haku-chan was the awesomest thing in sight! Granted, she might have been blinded by the Lamppost’s light, but-

“Are you usurping me, chuunin-kun?” Kakashi-sensei shunshined directly behind Naruto’s back and leaned over him, like a giant threatening to eat him. That was seriously impressive, because Naruto came up nearly to his biceps already.

Naruto had expected some killing intent to compound the effect, but Kakashi was looking at Haku-chan and, yeah, Dog-sensei probably knew how to treat puppies better than he knew how to treat human kids. No scaring them when they were little.

“You’re not even really the Hokage anymore,” Naruto dismissed the accusation. “What’s there to usurp?” As if he’d willingly take on the two ninja disasters!

He put the wiggling Haku on the ground and accepted a lick to his chin as his due.

Some dark magic must have hit them next. Sakura suddenly melted – no, not literally, more was the pity – fell to her knees, clasped her hands together and cooed. “Wow, what a pretty girl you are!”

Haku-chan bared his teeth and growled louder than anything that tiny had any right to. “‘ma boy!”

Naruto held out for about five seconds and then just exploded into laughter, rolling on the ground and grasping at a stitch in his side. This was too much. Too much.

“H-haku’s first words!”

And if there were tears… What? There always were tears when you laughed that hard! There totally… totally were.

Chuunin,” Sasuke hissed from somewhere out of Naruto’s sight. “There is no justice in the world.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. Riiight, as if the inability to relax made ninja somehow better. Bull. Nobody needed more high-strung Kage-level emotional bombs walking around. But it was like Sasuke just somehow couldn’t understand, like he was literally incapable of understanding, that pathos was not the same thing as seriousness or sincerity.

“Then…” Sakura inquired, abandoning the attempts to pet the uncooperative puppy and standing to look imploringly at her teacher. “You’re really stepping down, Kakashi-sensei?”

x

“Is this a joke?” Sarutobi Asuma stared at the scroll in his hand as though he was hoping the kanji would spontaneously rearrange themselves. He looked about ready to pack his bags and return to the Fire Daimyo’s court.

Iruka, sitting behind the Missions Desk, blinked at him beatifically. “Everything seems to be in order, sensei. Is there a problem?”

Asuma-san stomped out of the room past a handful of bewildered onlookers. Iruka could hear him muttering somewhere outside: “I’d say there’s a fucking problem! If I find Hatake did this to me on purpose-”

Iruka felt a little guilty about implicating Kakashi, but he would make it up to him.

x

“Saa…” Kakashi rubbed the back of his head. Why was his scalp itching? Had he pissed off Iruka again or was it just the highest time to wash his hair? He was used to washing it every other day to get out all the blood and dirt; but lately there had been no blood and very little dirt. Administration was confusing. “I only kept the place going before someone qualified could take over.” Well, Iruka had kept the place going; Kakashi had mostly just sat there and looked very attractive. And intimidating. And occasionally signed things.

“It’s exciting, though!” Sakura enthused. “We could say we were the Hokage’s students!”

Kakashi didn’t particularly think that being a Hokage’s student was anything to be proud of. Mostly it just meant your teacher barely had any time for you and then got himself heroically killed. But, oh well. People were proud of the strangest things.

“What happens now?” demanded Sasuke. “Are you reforming Team Seven?”

Not for all the quality porn on the continent.

Kakashi narrowed his eye in an approximation of a smile and shook his head. “Better! You’ll each get your very own team that you won’t have to share with the others. Won’t that be nice?”

“…no,” Sakura replied, shocked. “No, it won’t be. Sensei…?” She looked sideways at Sasuke.

The boy was watching Kakashi with a mixture of skepticism and cautious hope. “What’s the catch?”

Kakashi clapped his hands.  “Sakura-chan only gets a temporary assignment for now. Team Eight’s kunoichi is on medical leave for at least another month. Kurenai-sensei will take you on in the meantime.”

It served Kurenai right for being a bitch about entering the kids into the Chuunin Exams. Just desserts. Kakashi was down with this solution, and his glee only grew when Sakura grimaced and muttered about bugs and Kiba. At least – this he had to give her – she wasn’t so Sasuke-focused that she didn’t know who her teammates were going to be.

He was a little disappointed to see horror dawning in his other gennin’s eyes before he even started speaking, but he didn’t let it detract from this very pleasant experience. “Sasuke-kun, you are permanently assigned to Team Ten, since they are missing a mem-”

“With Ino?!” all three kids yelled at the same time.

x

“Ha!” Ino crowed.

A flock of thrushes startled from a nearby tree and escaped in the direction of the forest.

“Ha!” Ino danced around Asuma-sensei and punched Chouji in the shoulder – not even that hard! he could stop whining like a baby and rubbing it already! – because he was being a complete downer, and this was great news! The greatest news!

Ino pirouetted on the spot and pointed her finger at her sensei, who was also being an absolute downer. “I told Forehead so! I win!”

x

Sakura’s face flushed so it was as pink as her hair, and then continued darkening until she looked like steam would start coming out of her nose and ears any moment now. She strangled a screech with a hand slammed over her mouth.

Sasuke looked more homicidal than usual. That was very, very homicidal. He came by it honestly, but it didn’t look healthy. Still, it could have been worse – at least he wasn’t contemplating suicide just yet.

And that was Naruto’s point. He couldn’t believe that anyone would be as stupid as to finally free Sasuke of Sakura only to put him on a team with Ino. It was like… like they wanted to torture him. And Naruto wasn’t even blowing it out of proportion. This was nasty.

Not even the Lamppost deserved that.

“Quick, Sakura,” Naruto said, mind chewing through the options at lightning speed, “what does Ino hate? Bugs? Snakes? Cats? Croco-”

“Nobody but you hates cats, idiot!” Sakura yelled.

“-diles? There’s got to be something. Sasuke needs to acquire a summoning contract by tomor-”

“I don’t like cats either,” Dog-sensei nonchalantly pointed out.

“-row, and it’s got to be something that will make Ino keep her distance. So, what’s she hate? Or what’s she scared off? C’mon! Think!”

“Uh…” Sakura, catching onto his line of thought – and eager to sabotage Ino – frowned and contemplated. Then she brightened up and announced: “Large birds. Ideally raptors.”

A memory niggled. “Mizuki-bastard had a bird contract.” Before Naruto beat him to a pulp and left the remnants to the T&I. “His stuff probably went to his girlfriend. Iruka-sensei knows her. We could ask?”

Sasuke stared at Naruto as if he was seeing him for the first time in his life. And then he proved that something in him had broken completely when his new team assignment was announced, because he said: “Naruto… you’re my best friend.”

x

Chouji desolately stared into his half-full bag of chips. He had tried, because Asuma-sensei looked like he couldn’t deal with any more problems before he had smoked his way through two packets of cigarettes, but it was useless.

He couldn’t force himself to eat.

He missed Shika. It was childish of him, he knew, but they had always been together, and always knew they would be on a team together, and it just hadn’t ever occurred to Chouji that they might get split up one day.

Ino had stopped being Ino, and became a monster fangirl again.

And tomorrow there would be Uchiha Sasuke on their team.

Chouji maybe wanted to cry a little, but he would save that for later, when he was at home in his room and nobody would see him. Maybe Shika would come visit. Chouji didn’t mind if Shika saw him cry.

It wasn’t like it would be the first time.

x

Kakashi couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Was this a dream? He pinched himself. Nah. Was it a genjutsu?

A kai didn’t change anything about the scene. Neither did peeking with the Sharingan.

Was it a delusion brought on by sitting too long in the Hokage’s chair? Implausible, but he wouldn’t discard that theory just yet.

Were his former students for the first time in their miserable short careers cooperating? As in, working together? As in, not arguing, sharing intelligence and resources, and pursuing a common objective?

now?!

“Naruto-”

“Not now, sensei!” Naruto cut him off. “We’ve got a crisis here!”

“Yeah!” agreed Sakura-chan. “If that’s all, sensei, then thank-you-for-teaching-us-we’ll-see-you-around-bye-”

And they were gone, running toward the village in search of Iruka and – presumably – Tsubaki-san.

Kakashi shook his head. “So, Naruto-kun doesn’t want to know his new assignment? Saa.”

The canine co-leader of Naruto’s hunt, who up until now sat nearly unnoticeable in the shadow of a hazel bush, ambled forward until he stopped just short of biting distance of Kakashi. He eyed the scroll in Kakashi’s hand. “I’ll take that, sensei, and make sure he’s on time for the meet and greet. This way you’ll get to see his face when he finds out.”

He was gone before Kakashi figured out what it was about the eldest of Naruto’s ninken that niggled at his memory.

Chapter Text

“Hold it right there!” Tsunade yelled, and prepared to jump out of the window after the fleeing man.

Shockingly, Umino chose that moment to act like he was a diligent shinobi prepared to obey his Hokage’s orders. Tsunade didn’t buy this act for a second, but at least she didn’t have to go chasing after him over the rooftops.

“Yes, Hokage-sama?” Umino asked politely.

“Don’t even think about it,” she grumbled, throwing herself into the Hokage’s chair. As her arse hit the upholstery it occurred to her that she should have checked for tags – and possibly for tacks, too. She primed her chakra-

Nothing happened.

Umino’s face was trying to convince her that butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

Yeah, right. She hadn’t been born yesterday.

“You thought you’d dump this whole mess in my lap and go back to teaching brats?” she said. “Not on your life.” She didn’t have the slightest doubt that he and Hatake had both assigned themselves exactly where they wanted to be. For any other combination of ninja this would worry her greatly, and she would have ensured that the assignments were scrutinised very closely indeed.

Hatake and Umino, however, had the frightening combination of great power, great acumen, and an utter lack of ambition. Disgraceful, she had heard it said. Good for them, she thought.

She was perfectly fine with playing along – after they had cleaned up this rubbish heap.

“Uhm, Hokage-sama,” said Umino, all bemused deference, “I am only a chuunin; I work at the Shinobi Academy and man the Missions Desk, and I do try to help with the Tower administration whenever possible, but-”

“Do I look like that much of a sucker, kid?”

The chuunin fell quiet. He went on pretending to be befuddled. He wasn’t very good at pretending to be befuddled. Too shrewd, this one.

“You’re not leaving your post as the Hokage’s aide until the negotiations with Oto are concluded – to our satisfaction – and I’m reassured that Suna won’t suicidally attack us.”

Umino seemed to hesitate. Then he reached into the outbox on her desk – still filled with the documents processed by Hatake (or, more likely, by Umino himself – Hatake didn’t strike Tsunade as the type of ninja inclined to sit at a desk and do his paperwork) – and pulled out two scrolls. He handed them over to her.

Tsunade skimmed them both. The first was the official release of Umino Iruka from his duties as the aide to the Hokage pending the signing of a contract with the representatives of the Land of Rice Fields. The other was Hatake’s new assignment, worded vaguely enough to stand up to scrutiny, but in the end amounting to patrol and peace-keeping in Wind’s borderlands.

Umino waited until Tsunade looked up at him before he answered her unasked question: “It’s our work. We’re not going to leave it unfinished.”

x

Naruto came with Sakura and Sasuke to see Iruka-sensei at the Missions Desk – he seemed to be just dropping in on his way elsewhere, so they were lucky to catch him – but once sensei gave them directions – after he had thoroughly interrogated them – Naruto decided that he had done his part.

He didn’t want to go see Tsubaki-san, and he was pretty sure she wouldn’t have wanted to see him. It really bothered him when Iruka-sensei talked about her, because she seemed like a nice person who got her heart broken by Mizuki-bastard.

And a little by Naruto, too, ‘cause Naruto was the one who had exposed Mizuki-bastard’s bastardness and then kicked the stuffing out of him. And even though he was a bastard, she probably loved him. If she didn’t hate Naruto outright, she definitely at least resented him.

So Naruto went to the Hospital instead.

“Hokage-sama has been released,” said the woman behind the reception counter when she saw him come in.

Naruto guessed that he could have come in under a Henge if he wanted to reduce the risk of being turned away for being himself, but if he did everything under a disguise, he might as well stop being Naruto. He needed to make himself be seen as the person he was if he was to be accepted one day.

Besides, the Hospital was full of medics, and the better medics could tell who he was by his chakra. Then he would be made, and they’d think he was in disguise because he wanted to do something underhanded, like prank the Hospital.

He wouldn’t do that. That was not right. If he decided to prank any of the medics, he would catch them off shift. And he’d only decide to do something like that if they really, really deserved it.

“Yeah, like, three weeks ago,” he told the woman, who apparently thought he didn’t have any friends, and wouldn’t visit anybody at the hospital.

Naruto hadn’t seen the Old Man in the meantime, ‘cause he was ‘recuperating’ at his Clan House, and they weren’t letting anybody in. Except the ANBU guards and Tsunade and Iruka-sensei. But Iruka-sensei said that Tsunade had helped the Old Man last week, and he was a lot better now.

So, hopefully Naruto would get to visit him soon.

First this, though. He glared at the receptionist, who was glaring at him. They both kept glaring for a while, and then-

“Excuse me,” said a long-suffering voice from behind Naruto. “You are blocking the entrance.”

Naruto turned. “It’s Goat Boy! Hi, Goat Boy!”

Hyuuga Neji’s long-suffering tone was matched by a long-suffering expression. “I would prefer if you didn’t call me that, Uzumaki.”

“Yeah, but!” Naruto gestured expansively. “But you see like three hundred and sixty degrees, and goats see almost three hundred and sixty degrees, so it makes sense, right? You should be proud of your skills, Goat Boy!”

Those weird pupil-less eyes blinked at Naruto. Hyuuga said, dryly: “Didn’t you say something about me being too proud and needing to learn humbleness? I may recall a direct quote-”

“Yeah, but you’re all better now, aren’t you? So you can start learning to be proud of your skills without being a complete jerk about it. Gambatte yo-ttebayo!” Naruto showed him two thumbs-up – and it was only ‘cause Hyuuga was standing too close that he had to jerk back to avoid being punched in the jaw by Naruto’s thumb-up fists.

“Out!” exclaimed the receptionist. “Get lost, Uzumaki-”

“Hey, it’s Naruto!” Kiba called out from the stairs. “We came to see who was causing so much ruckus – should have figured it’d be you!”

“Indeed,” said Shino, appearing by Kiba’s side.

“C’mon!” Kiba waved Naruto over. “I’ll take you to see Hinata – you’re here for her, right? You’re gonna make her day!”

“Wait a minute-” The receptionist tried to protest, but was collectively ignored.

Hyuuga followed quietly in Naruto’s wake, only for a second Shino to appear in front of him and block the hallway. The clone had lines of tiny black insects migrating from the sleeves of the genjutsu-jacket to its genjutsu face, where they seemed to disappear inside through the mouth.

It was freaky.

Naruto turned just in time to see Hyuuga activate the Byakugan. He readied himself for a fight although, to be honest, he didn’t have a clue what he would do if one started. Kiba and Shino were right to protect their teammate after what had happened.

Hyuuga though – he was messed up. Getting a little better, maybe, but he needed all the help he could get.

Nobody attacked in the end. After a while of mounting tension Hyuuga simply spun, hitting Shino’s clone in the genjutsu-face with his hair, and walked away.

x

“Hey, Hinata, look who we found blocking the hallways!” Kiba-kun called out, swaggering through the door.

Hinata took a deep breath and forced herself to greet the visit with a smile.

The visitors were being very kind to her, and she didn’t want them to think she wasn’t grateful, but it was a little bit difficult. Shino-kun and Kiba-kun had been keeping her company for almost an hour already, and she felt tired and achy, and in truth wanted quite desperately to close her eyes and sleep.

And then-

Naruto-kun came in after Kiba-kun.

Hinata felt her pained smile stretch into one far more genuine. She couldn’t believe he had come here to see her. In fact, it was far more likely that she was already asleep and having a nice dream.

“H-hello, N-naruto-kun…” she whispered. Her cheeks were hot.

“Hey, Hinata,” he replied, waving a little. “Good to see you. Heard Tsunade came by. She give you any good news?”

“Ano… that is…”

“Hokage-sama gave Hinata a better prognosis,” Shino-kun offered. “It was a great relief.”

“Cool!” Naruto-kun agreed. “I guess for a drunken deserter, she’s not so bad.” His face twisted briefly, but whatever was making him angry was quickly pushed away, and he directed another of his brave, bright smiles at her. “I’m glad you’re gonna get better. Next time you’ll kick Goat Boy’s butt! Believe it!”

“Goat Boy!” Kiba-kun repeated delightedly and started snickering.

The corner of Shino-kun’s mouth lifted, too.

Naruto-kun rolled his eyes. “It’s ‘cause he sees three hundred and sixty degrees.”

That, Hinata guessed, made herself the Goat Girl. Also, a lot more funnily, it made her Father the Goat Man. It was probably the drugs, but she giggled at the idea of Father’s face if he ever found out.

“So,” Naruto-kun continued, ignoring the amusement of all the Team Eight members, “I just wanted to say good luck and if you need anything, tell me. Or send one of these guys to tell me.” He scratched behind Akamaru-kun’s ears to include him in ‘these guys’.

Hinata’s eyes widened. Bolstered by the chemicals in her bloodstream, she said: “There is something.” She felt the blush return, but she wasn’t going to let embarrassment paralyse her. Not this time. “Shino-kun, Kiba-kun, Akamaru-kun, would you excuse us?”

Her teammates exchanged looks. Kiba-kun elbowed Shino-kun in the side; Akamaru-kun head-butted Naruto-kun’s leg. The two boys and the ninken ambled out of the room, leaving a clueless Naruto-kun behind. Hinata could see Kiba-kun’s lips soundlessly forming the word ‘confession’.

The door snicked shut.

Naruto-kun took a step closer to Hinata’s bed and scratched at the back of his neck. “Uh, Hinata…”

Hinata pulled a folded-up piece of paper from under her pillow and extended her hand to him (that took far more energy than it had any right to).

Naruto-kun hesitantly took it.

Hinata closed her eyes in relief and exhaustion. “Please,” she said, “please, Naruto-kun, give that to Neji-nii-san.”

When he promised he would, she felt a tear escape from under her eyelid. She didn’t see him leave; by the time he did she was already asleep.

x

Sakura was beginning to get worried.

Tsubaki-san had surprised her by not needing very much persuasion to part with the summoning scroll. Usually such things were very precious to people, but Tsubaki-san just gave it to them after listening to their explanations and begging – well, Sakura’s begging, since it wouldn’t be right for Sasuke-kun to act like that… although he did say ‘please’ and sounded like he meant it.

Sasuke-kun must really dislike Ino, Sakura thought, and usually that would have been followed by a happy exclamation from that nasty part inside her that knew Ino’s loss was Sakura’s victory. But. But Sakura could only remain willfully blind for so long.

Sasuke-kun had been happy to be rid of the rest of Team Seven (until he learnt he would be assigned to Team Ten). Sakura hadn’t won anything. Ironically, this was exactly like the Chuunin Exams: Sakura and Ino tied. In loss.

“They’re…” Sakura tried. “They’re very majestic birds.”

Sasuke-kun continued blankly staring at the contract.

Sakura wasn’t sure, but she guessed he was probably weighing the option of facing Ino without any deterrent against the option of spending the rest of his career with… uh… not quite unorthodox summons, but certainly not the kind of dignified and awe-striking summons people expected when they thought of the last member of the great Uchiha Clan.

“That man…” Sasuke muttered, barely audibly, so he was probably not talking to Sakura. “…summons crows.”

Maybe we did turn him off of women? pointed out inner Sakura.

Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! the real Sakura thought at the voice in her head.

“Uh…” Sakura wasn’t sure what to do with this. She decided to say the safest thing she could think of: “People have lots of different summons. Tsunade-sama has got slugs, and the Yondaime had toads, and-”

“Hey, guys!” Naruto called out. A second later he landed in a crouch next to them. “Oh, you got it. Great! What’s with the long faces?”

Sasuke-kun glared. This didn’t affect Naruto at all. He must have been really used to it. In fact, Naruto took the glare as an invitation to lean over Sasuke-kun’s shoulder and read the contract.

“That’s what you’re angsting about?” He huffed and rolled his eyes.

Sakura wanted to punch him.

That would be satisfying, but wouldn’t change the fact that he’s right, pointed out inner Sakura. Hey, if Sasuke-kun doesn’t want the contract, let’s sign it ourselves, shannaro!

Sakura agreed. When would she have another chance like this?

“Hey, bastard,” said Naruto, “at least it’s not flamingoes, right?”

Sasuke-kun looked up then, frowning in contemplation. Then he turned to Sakura and his eyes climbed up past her face – to her hair. He smirked. “You’re right, idiot.”

Sakura considered – for just a moment, and not very seriously – dyeing her hair.

Sod that! exclaimed her inner self. Time to make up some witty quips about pelicans!

She was sure Naruto would help (between the gular pouches, long bills and Sasuke-kun’s haircut, there was sure to be a wealth of punchlines there). Naruto had a long, long practice making fun of Sasuke-kun – he might as well put it to a good use.

It was better to laugh. She certainly wasn’t going to cry. Wasn’t. Honestly.

Next time Sasuke-kun needs something, we’re sure as hell not doing his begging for him!

x

“Tadaima,” Sasuke said to the empty room of the empty house in the empty Compound.

He cooked pasta for dinner and sat down at the kitchen table to eat it, attention half on the scroll placed at the empty space opposite him.

Of the three of the former Team Seven members, Naruto was the only one who had signed a summoning contract.

Sasuke considered swallowing his pride and asking the menace how he should go about it, but then he remembered Naruto’s retelling of the occasion, and decided that where a toddler finger-painting over a contract and then having an uncontrolled burst of chakra accompanying a passed wind could be considered ‘cute’ by a certain subset of summons, it was unlikely to work for a thirteen-year-old (still) gennin.

Another alternative was seeking out a ninja who had acquired a summoning contract in a more realistic scenario. However, that carried the risk of said ninja simply taking the contract away from Sasuke, and he would rather fight a house-sized pelican than a jounin (their sad excuse for a jounin sensei had taught him at least that much).

Among other things, it carried a lesser chance of being dragged off to Torture and Interrogation, or being deactivated as a shinobi for psychological reasons.

He knew that the results of his latest evaluation had made the gossip rounds.

It couldn’t be that difficult, surely? His Sharingan had copied the jutsu itself from Kakashi. A few seals, a flow of chakra – directed through the contract the first time – and then presumably some vicious negotiation before they conceded to the signing. He could do this.

He walked out to the courtyard and spread the scroll in front of him. The sun was setting, colouring the sky orange and yellow, almost as though the Fire Country were actually on fire. The din of the village was so far away that it remained at the very edge of perceptibility.

At least it’s not flamingoes, he thought facetiously. And then he thought honestly: at least it’s not crows.

Kuchiyose no Jutsu!”

Chapter Text

The Inauguration itself was half a day spent in preparations and then half-an-hour performance for the public. Iruka begged off of the afterparty, came home and face-planted into their bed.

Kakashi was already there, fast asleep.

It occurred to Iruka that he had seen Kakashi follow the procession to the Sarutobi Clan House, where the afterparty was being hosted. He sighed. What he would give for the chakra reserves to create lasting shadow clones…

x

The inauguration-thingy meant that most ninja in Konoha got the day off. Sunface did the only logical and right thing: he summoned Juuji and his little sister and spent the afternoon with them, like they used to when they were puppies. He spent a lot of time ranting about the new Hokage and describing the gathering, so Juuji mostly tuned him out and focused on the tracking exercise.

The Flea had been easy to find: at home, with her family. No challenge at all.

The Lamppost was harder, but only by virtue of being way out in the forest. They did find him in the end, although what they saw was nothing at all like what Juuji had imagined.

Sasuke was… fishing.

Uchiha Sasuke. The Lamppost. The guy who turned up his nose at training with his teammates, participated in missions only under implicit threats from Dog-sensei, and disdained any non-killing-related activities, was fishing. Although, that counted as killing, right?

No, wait, maybe this made perfect sense.

Juuji hunkered down in the grass to watch. Annai did the same on Naruto’s other side, and eventually Naruto too lay on his belly, pillowed his head on his forepaws, and settled down to observe.

Sasuke was standing thigh-deep in the brook, bent forwards, with his hands in the water. Every once in a while he grabbed. About half the time he pulled out a fish and offered it for inspection to a large gray-and-white bird. The bird stood on a rock jutting out of the water, so it had to lean down to Sasuke’s raised hands for each inspection.

It ate about every third fish. The rest Sasuke let go.

When Sasuke lunged but came up empty-handed, there was some grumbling and bristling. Prissy kitten didn’t much like water, apparently – ha! Couldn’t have gotten better summons, short of actual fish.

“I could grab his shirt,” Annai suggested, nodding toward the distant rock where Sasuke had left most of his gear bundled up in his short-sleeved wearable Uchiwa flag. “Let him walk home like that.”

Naruto looked like he was seriously considering this option, but eventually shook his head. “Nah. Any fangirls he might pass by would explode, and we shouldn’t kill civilians. Especially not our own civilians.”

Juuji critically squinted at the long, shapeless body with worm-like white skin, the pathetic tuft of black hair on its head wet and plastered to its neck, and a pair of tiny – also white – soaked shorts clinging to its middle. “He’s not that disgusting?” he opined.

Naruto snorted. “That’s a matter of opinion.”

“Ne, Naruto,” Annai inquired, getting bored now that her pranking idea had been shot down, “why are we even watching him?”

That was a good question.

“‘cause I wanted to know how he’s getting along with his new summons-”

The big bird laughed loudly, snapping its long beak. Sasuke, in a fit of pique, threw his latest fish into the water hard enough to at least stun, if not outright kill it.

“Then you do it if you’re so smart!” yelled worm-boy.

The bird spread its wings, suddenly looking more like a stork than an awkward duck, and bopped the boy on the head with its beak. “Is that a way to speak to a noble and skilled hunter, little chick? Huh? Is that?”

“I haven’t seen you hunt anything yet-!” Sasuke retorted, visibly biting down on the automatic insult in the end there.

For that he received another bop.

“Ouch,” Naruto muttered, cringing in sympathy. “Looks at least as hard as Sakura’s hits.”

There was one thing Juuji honestly didn’t understand about this scene. He had thought he had the Lamppost figured out, and that guy would have showed any bird the bird if he thought it was getting uppity at him. “Why is he going along with that?”

Naruto mused on this topic for a while, and eventually decided: “I think Sasuke’s finally met someone who’s a bigger butthole than him. Basically, he’s impressed.”

x

“Umino, a word!” Tsunade-sama snapped, striding past him in the corridor of the Hokage Tower.

Iruka had been about to take his typical three-minute break for lunch. He suppressed a sigh and spun on his heel. It was to be another day survived on field rations. Funny how negotiations in the centre of a ninja village resembled warfare in the trenches in some small ways.

He entered the Hokage’s office hoping that his stomach wouldn’t embarrass him and growl at his leader. If only he could stop thinking about food-

“Sit!” Tsunade-sama ordered him.

Another Tsunade-sama landed on the windowsill and without a word dropped a container into Iruka’s lap. Its heavenly smell prompted the dreaded growl of his stomach.

“I see the mutt’s point,” said the first Tsunade-sama. “Next time send someone for food, Umino. You’ve still got authority around here – I shouldn’t be accosted by somebody’s ninken claiming that you’re about to keel over from hunger.”

Iruka would have apologised, but she didn’t give him a chance.

“My advisors,” said the second Tsunade-sama, who was probably the shadow clone, “have completed the dossier you will need for successful negotiations. Eat and listen; I will give you a crash-course.”

Iruka ate his inarizushi – probably strategically picked as the kind of food that didn’t require much focus, and wouldn’t spill all over the paperwork – and listened to the explanations. For being a multi-level negotiation strategy, it was really very straightforward and excellently prepared. Obviously, Tsunade-sama’s advisors had put a lot of effort into it.

There were initial demands outlined, with notes for Iruka personally so he understood the background and relative importance of each one of them. There were concessions which could be made, and points on which he wasn’t allowed to compromise.

“Correct me if I am wrong, Hokage-sama,” he ventured, “but aren’t trade agreements within the purview of the Council?”

“Yes, Umino, but it’s all a technicality. And, since the war technically hasn’t ended until the treaties are signed, this is all a matter for war council and, congratulations, you are my appointed war councilor.”

Iruka knew that there was no point to arguing. He turned over a page and read another set of strongly worded recommendations.

It was clear as day that at least one of the Hokage’s advisors had extensive knowledge of the Land of Rice Fields – and just as clear that they were not nearly as well-informed about the Land of Fire. Perhaps Iruka had been wrong. Perhaps Jiraiya-sama had become Tsunade-sama’s Shadow.

In any case, he had his stomach and his hands full, and he finally saw his freedom from politics looming on the horizon, so he decided not to stick his nose into Godaime-sama’s business and let an overabundance of sensitive knowledge drag him back into the mire.

x

Sakura should have expected it, but it still came as a shock when her new sensei turned up to the team meeting three minutes early. It was arcane. It threw her off her stride.

“Good morning everyone!” Kurenai-sensei said with a smile. A genuine smile. Or, at least, a genuine-looking smile.

Sakura felt an indescribable yet distinct wrongness about this situation.

Kai?” she tried half-heartedly.

Her new teammates stared at her as though she was the weird one.

That’s because you are the weird one, inner Sakura informed her mercilessly. What, you thought you came out of Team Seven well-adjusted?

You shut up! Sakura told herself, and thus further confirmed Inner’s point.

“Ah, good initiative, Sakura-chan,” said Kurenai-sensei, still smiling that benevolent, supportive smile. There was not the slightest hint of censure or sarcasm in it. “Genjutsu at unexpected times is a part of our training, due to my own expertise in illusions, but I would not throw you into the deep end of the pool right off the bat. We want to welcome you to the team properly, before we start on anything difficult.”

Is she kidding, deadpanned Inner.

Sakura wanted to defend her future sensei, but the only valid defence of this monologue that occurred to her was the slight chance that it might have been a double-bluff.

Kai!” she repeated with a little more panache.

Nothing changed.

Kiba and Shino looked at one another (although how that worked with Shino’s sunglasses Sakura had no idea) and then they and Akamaru took a synchronised half-step backwards, as though Sakura was contagious.

I’ll make them eat their sandals, Shannaro!

“So, uhm…” said Kurenai-sensei, smile slipping just a little, and, although it didn’t show on her face, Sakura had a suspicion that she was embarrassed. For Sakura. “We may know each other’s names, but let’s start with some nice introductions anyway, how does that sound?”

Sakura’s eyes slid down over the jounin’s slinky dress to the woman’s feet.

She was also wearing sandals.

It’s a plan.

x

Sasuke sat lotus-style in the shade of an oak, hands clenched in his lap, doing his best not to quiver with trepidation and weariness.

It had been a while since he had exhausted himself in training so much that two meals and a night’s sleep had not regenerated him sufficiently. But Asuka was a harsh taskmaster – harsher even than Sasuke’s Father had been, once, a long time ago.

He dreaded the hours of waiting; he knew his mind would cycle, replaying yesterday over and over until he would want to just beat something into the ground to get away from the noise and take refuge in the oblivion of physical pain.

The summoning could have gone better. Asuka’s ‘What, you thought you’d just order me about? Dream on, egg-yolk,’ still echoed in his ears and made him flush with embarrassment.

But it could have gone far, far worse. Asuka only made a cursory round of the decrepit, empty Uchiha Compound before she decided that Sasuke’s circumstances were unacceptable (yes, she managed to glean this after ten minutes, as opposed to the whole fucking village that somehow missed this fact for almost seven fucking years!) and decided to take over Sasuke’s life.

He had tried to protest… but her hits were swift, her bill hard, and she had no compunctions about committing violence upon him.

“Sasuke-kuuun!” echoed through the training fields.

Sasuke instinctively kawarimi’d with the nearest useful object. When he opened his eyes, Ino was sprawled on the grass and hugging a rotten log.

He hoped it was full or worms.

Ino squealed, jumped to her feet, kicked the log away (it broke into two pieces, which barely rolled over) and franticly tried to clean her top.

So, Sasuke thought, there would not be hours for his mind to torture him. Instead, there was a blonde ninja harpy to torture him. Had he thought Sakura was bad? Well, Sakura was bad.

Ino was just-

“Sasuke-kun, so cruel!” she exclaimed. “And I came earlier just so I could meet you first, and welcome you to our team and ask you-”

“What do you mean earlier?” Sasuke cut in. It was quarter to eight. He had been here for forty-five minutes already. Alone. At least with Kakashi, the idiot and the useless baggage had the basic ability to come on time and share the resentment.

“Meeting’s at ten, Sasuke-kun!” Ino informed him perkily. “The guys usually come between ten and half past, but I just knew that Sasuke-kun wasn’t the type to half-ass anything, and would come early! So I didn’t want you to wait here all alone so I’m to keep you company!”

Sasuke was going to kill Kakashi. Well, he was first going to make Kakashi teach him the Shunshin, then the Chidori, and only then kill him.

Because if he knew the Shunshin, he would have been able to shunshin out of this situation.

And if he knew the Chidori, there wouldn’t be a situation anymore.

As it were, Sasuke jumped up into the branches of the oak and scrammed as fast as he could.

He’d come back in three hours.

x

“Hey!” said a voice that recently featured in his nightmares.

“Uzumaki-san,” Neji replied. He tensed against his will. He knew Uzumaki would not seek him out for any nefarious purpose, but his body still remembered the pain inflicted upon it by this boy. Worse, he only had to look at the flak jacket over Uzumaki’s orange t-shirt to flash back to those agonising words.

Neji would not cringe, even though he wished to.

Uzumaki was smiling at him. That was its own kind of humiliation.

“Can I help you?” Neji asked with as little emotion as possible. “Gai-sensei is-”

“Busy – I could tell,” Uzumaki cut in. “I was looking for you, actually, and I found you by following the yelling.”

If one listened closely, the exclamations of ‘Lee!’ and ‘Gai-sensei!’ could still be heard in the distance.

Neji viciously suppressed a sigh. One day soon, he was sure, Tenten would deign to speak to him again. Sadly, she gave him the condition that he must apologise to Hinata first, and although Neji honestly wished to tender an apology for his conduct regardless of his teammate’s prompting, it was more difficult than he could have imagined. Between Inuzuka Kiba, Aburame Shino and, oddly enough, his Great Aunt Himawari (who was a medic at the Hospital, and always seemed to know within a minute whenever Neji darkened its doorstep), Neji had not yet managed to get within earshot of Hinata-sama.

“I’ve got something for you,” said Uzumaki and extended his hand, holding out an envelope.

Neji activated his Byakugan and ascertained that it was not a seal with some sort of ‘humorous’ effect, but an actual letter, written in Hinata-sama’s handwriting. He eagerly snatched it from Uzumaki’s hand and nearly ripped it in the haste to unfold it.

“If you want to write back to her,” Uzumaki said, although Neji barely heard it, focused as he was on his cousin’s words, “just find me. I’ll play messenger. See you ‘round, Goat Boy.”

When Neji raised his head again, fighting the swell of emotion and wishing to thank Uzumaki, the boy was already gone.

x

This, Sasuke thought, staring at the smoker sprawled on the grass, was the Sandaime Hokage’s son, formerly one of the Twelve Fire Guardians. While under Kakashi’s – for a lack of a better word – tutelage, Sasuke had occasionally imagined what he might have achieved, had he been assigned to a jounin that did not deliberately masquerade as a clown.

He knew for a fact that there were such jounin.

Unfortunately, it seemed like someone somewhere high up hated him, and made it a point to try and get Sasuke to regret ever tying on a hitai-ate.

“Yo,” said Asuma without opening his eyes. He blew out a cloud of smoke.

Sasuke nodded in his direction.

“And you’re not even that late.” The man chuckled. “Guess Kakashi must not have rubbed off on you yet.”

Sasuke blamed the double entendre that occurred to him entirely on Sakura, and proceeded to pretend he hadn’t heard anything. If Asuma thought he was funny, that was his personal problem, and Sasuke was in no way obligated to disabuse him of his delusions.

“Sasuke-kun!” Ino shouted – predictably.

Sasuke kawarimi’d. Just in time. He dropped down from the canopy of the tree where he had landed, and tried to approach the team from a different direction. At this point, the Akimichi seemed like the lesser evil.

“Yeah, uhm, hi,” said the Akimichi. “Sorry about Ino. But we can’t actually do anything about her. We tried…” The look in his eyes spoke of a childhood filled with a bossy Yamanaka girl.

Sasuke felt a stirring of pity, but it didn’t last long, because here Ino came again.

Since Asuma didn’t look like he would deign to move, presumably counting on the gennin to settle their disputes between themselves, Sasuke assumed the responsibility for protecting himself.

Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!”

Ino yelped and dodged. Mostly. About a third of her ponytail was burnt off, filling the air with stink that beat out even Asuma’s tobacco.

Sasuke felt his lips stretching in something approximating a smile.

Ino cried out, and amongst litanies about her ‘poor beautiful hair’ inspected the damage. It wasn’t all that dramatic in Sasuke’s opinion, but he wouldn’t have minded putting the fear of Uchiha into the fangirl. Anything, if it got her to leave him alone.

“Uh, Sasuke,” said Akimichi, “I respected you… you know, as a shinobi… I’m sure the funeral will be nice.”

Ino looked up from her hair. Something strange happened to her face; her features twisted, and she pulled out a sai. Sasuke had never before seen her use anything but Academy standard weaponry, and none of it had ever been directed at him.

“You don’t need the use of all your limbs to make a good husband,” Ino opined in a conversational tone.

Sasuke had initially intended to keep his summoning contract in reserve for if Ino ever became more intolerable. He had failed to account for the fact that intolerability was very difficult to measure once the subject reached level ‘grounds for justifiable homicide’, and Ino had self-assuredly passed that mark already back in the Academy.

Sasuke had not expected to fear for the continued use of his extremities.

Shinobi had to know when to take a step back and call in reinforcements.

Kuchiyose no Jutsu!”

The following fight was short, mostly one-sided, and ended when Asuma’s shadow clone grabbed Ino and pulled her away into relative safety.

The real Asuma moved around the training ground and put out fires.

Akimichi was still sitting on his rock, eating his chips. He looked like it would take far more than intra-team murder attempts and point-blank explosions to shake him out of his apathy.

Sasuke was done. He knew he was done. It was going to be another psych eval for him, and then either enforced retirement or aggressive ‘reeducation’ by way of the shadier ANBU detachments. These were his last days of freedom.

He needed to get out while there was still a chance.

Asuka landed on his outstretched arm (and nearly sent him to his knees). “What does the female want from you?”

“…mate,” Sasuke grumbled. He had hoped that the rage at harming her hair might have squashed the fangirlism, but it appeared that Ino was made of the same mold as Sakura.

“A female pursuing a male?” Asuka scornfully clacked her bill. “Has she no pride?! Is she even old enough to lay eggs?”

“We’re mammals.” Sasuke wasn’t sure what happened to his life that this was a sentence he had already said more than once, and could foresee himself repeating in the future. Often. “And not really.”

If there was a topic Sasuke didn’t want to breach with his overbearing summon, it was the technicalities of human reproduction. He had enough nightmares about screeching women stalking him through the darkened, rotting hallways of the Uchiha Compound as was.

“Right.” Asuka fluffed up her feathers. “I’ve heard some mammals mate for life. So unnatural.”

Sasuke chose to refrain from mentioning swans.

Chapter Text

If it weren’t for his nose, Naruto might have had trouble finding Iruka-sensei. He ran along the roofs on the lookout for the typical chuunin uniform and the ponytail, but when his nose alerted him to Iruka-sensei’s presence, there was no flak jacket in sight.

There was, at least, still the ponytail.

Iruka-sensei was wearing battle armor again, just like he had after the fight against Orochimaru when Old Man Hokage nearly died and Kakashi-sensei had had to temporarily become Hokage. For a moment Naruto got scared that something horrible had happened again – was a war starting for real? He knew that everybody was worried that there would be a war.

But, no, Iruka-sensei seemed too calm, and nobody else was panicking either, so there must have been something different going on. Unfortunately, Iruka-sensei sat down at a table that was already occupied by Jiraiya, and started a conversation.

Naruto did his best to act professional and not let his grudge get in the way while he was working (both Kana-san and Iruka-sensei said they were proud of him), but he wasn’t going to spend his off-duty time with the guy who should have been his Godfather. Besides, Kana-san’s opinion of Jiraiya mostly matched Naruto’s, and Iruka-sensei had said that he had his own grudge against the Toad Sage.

Which made the conversation going on below in the restaurant’s summer garden all the more interesting.

Naruto edged closer to the eaves.

“No,” Iruka-sensei said definitively. “No, I’m not going on another mission outside the village. Sarutobi-sama forbade it for a reason.”

Jiraiya snorted into his nearly empty coffee cup. “Ah. Did you finally find out how many people in Konoha want you dead?” He chuckled, as though threats to Iruka-sensei’s life were somehow funny. “You’ll get used to it, Itoshii-kun.”

‘Itoshii-kun’? Naruto wanted to bleach his brain and slap his hands over his ears and un-read Ero Ero Paradigm. He dearly wished wouldn’t have understood the nickname. Oh, why had Anko-nee done this to him? She was evil. Evil.

He resolved to breathe through this terrible shock and later, once he had overcome the trauma, tease Iruka-sensei relentlessly.

Right after he had pranked Jiraiya to the next week for laughing at the idea of Iruka-sensei in danger.

“This is the only place in Konoha that makes decent coffee,” mused the old man, before he settled the empty cup on the saucer with a deliberate clink. “If you are not offering your own contributions, boy, then who-”

Iruka-sensei stood and in the nick of time side-stepped a waitress that had nearly backed into him, arms loaded with four huge plates of colourful food. She was kinda amazing to watch. Naruto doubted that he would be able to carry so much food without upending all the plates over the sitting customers, and he was a trained ninja.

“With all due respect, Jiraiya-sama,” Iruka-sensei said so quietly that Naruto barely heard the words, “this is not a discussion for a public venue. There are more ears listening than we are aware of.”

Jiraiya looked up – but not to the place where Naruto was squatting. He glanced to the next house, to a roof that looked more like a piece of blooming jungle, except that it bristled with radio antennas sticking out from all the green. “Of that I am absolutely certain. Walk with me, and we’ll talk about your shy friend’s problems.”

Huh, Naruto thought. That was so weird. There were people in the village who wanted to hurt Iruka-sensei? They stalked him? Who was Iruka-sensei’s shy friend? And how was Naruto going to get back at Anko-nee for giving him the Ero Ero spin-off series to read?

x

“What is this?!”

Asuka’s baleful look cast aspersions on Sasuke’s intelligence.

Sasuke glared back at her. “It might be the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

The thing looked like the plucked chickens sold at the market, only it still had its head fully attached, and was presently chirping it off.

“You think you were pretty when you hatched?” Asuka snapped, and then regurgitated liquid, half-digested fish from her throat sack into the ugly little thing’s mouth.

Sasuke’s stomach very nearly did the same process with his lunch. “I am a mammal.” And presently very glad for it.

“Even worse. All scrunched up from getting pushed through the cloaca and covered in blood. You’ve got no room to talk.” She spread her wings and flew off to the pond to feed herself, since Sasuke was apparently an inept fisher and today she didn’t have the patience to wait for him to catch something.

Sasuke made himself a little more comfortable on the gravel and looked at the pathetic creature. It kept chirping even though its Aunt wasn’t there anymore. Anything could have killed it.

Sasuke was half-tempted to let it happen, provided anything would try. Still, the death would probably reflect poorly upon him as the designated guardian, so he resolved to give the squab a chance.

“Take this.” He offered it a senbon. “Nobody’s ever going to protect you. You do it yourself, or you die.”

To his surprise, the thing either understood him or was half-magpie and liked shiny things, because it pulled the senbon out of Sasuke’s fingers with its soft, ineffectual beak, and tucked it under its bare, soup-ingredient wing.

x

Naruto received two pieces of mail in one day. If this went on, he might actually become popular!

Granted, one of those two pieces was a mission assignment – B-rank, annoyingly vague, even more annoyingly lead by Jiraiya – and the other was Neji’s reply to Hinata’s letter, so it wasn’t as though anyone was actually writing to him.

Still, he didn’t let that discourage him, and made the trip to the Hospital to deliver Hinata’s correspondence – which had better be an effusive apology, or Naruto was going to put the fear of prank masters into the Goat Boy.

Hinata was asleep, so Naruto put the letter under her pillow (he almost nicked himself on a kunai she kept there) and would have left, except that on his way out he bumped into Sakura. She was sitting on a bench in the hallway that doubled as the waiting room for non-urgent injuries, smelling like anger – a typical Sakura smell – and blood – not typical exactly, but also fairly common.

She did not smell like she was in pain, though.

“Hey, Sakura. How’s Team Eight?”

x

Sakura turned her scowl to him. “A joke.”

Naruto blinked. “That bad? ‘cause Aka-chan’s awesome-”

“Kurenai-sensei missed her calling as a kindergarten teacher. Shino doesn’t talk – he communicates through eye-contact despite wearing shades, and Kiba can’t even take a fucking punch!” Her voice rose to a screech toward the end, inner Sakura momentarily surfacing, and she slammed a hand over her mouth. What if Sasuke-kun heard?

Oh, Sasuke-kun! Where was he? Had he maimed Ino-pig yet? Or was he waiting until there would be no witnesses? Now, Sasuke-kun could actually fight. Sakura wouldn’t have a hope of landing a hit on him – not that she wanted to! She never would really try to hit Sasuke.

She would hit Naruto, happily, and did so, often, but at least Naruto got right back up afterwards. Not like wimpy Kiba who needed Kurenai-sensei to cart him off to the Hospital, moaning and whimpering and complaining about broken ribs. Wimp.

Naruto tilted his head to the side and blinked. “Yeah, sounds like a conspiracy. I bet Sasuke’s not doing any better.”

“And you?” Sakura demanded. “What are you doing?” There wasn’t any vacancy on Team Nine, although at this point she would happily wish Gai-sensei on Naruto, simply out of the desire to spread her unhappiness.

“Mission,” Naruto replied shortly.

And, much as Sakura wanted to ask, she didn’t. He was a chuunin, after all, if only technically, and that meant he would be assigned C-ranks. Possibly B-ranks, sometimes. In any case, those mission statements were confidential, and asking about their contents would be a rookie mistake.

She wasn’t a rookie anymore. She wasn’t going to be a rookie anymore, at least.

x

Kakashi scowled. “Can we afford the delay?” By which he meant that they should stop messing about, because he was trying to prevent a war here, and the last time a war happened it drove two of the three Legendary Sannin out of the village. Incidentally, those two that were now present in the Hokage’s office and self-importantly rearranging Kakahi’s complex plans to suit their whims.

What if he failed? What if another war started? Would they both pack up and run for the hills again and leave the village to Kakashi again?

Tsunade looked at him like he was something smelly left on her doorstep. “You delayed for weeks, with the reasoning that the right team was more important than speed. And I agree with you there-”

“But if you could wait for nearly a month for the team-lead to hand over the Hat,” Jiraiya cut in, “you can wait two days for a crucial team-member to complete crucial intelligence work.”

Kakashi gauged the two old people and briefly met Shikaku’s eye. Apparently, there was no point to arguing. These newcomers came in, took over (thank whatever higher power was having a giggle at the humankind) and started changing things left and right without any consideration for what they might affect down the line.

At least Iruka would be here to salvage what could be salvaged.

“I’m not delaying departure,” he said in the end. “Bring Naruto back by Tuesday morning. We’re leaving later in the day – if I have to do introductions on the road, I will.” It would not be the first time.

Doing the initial meet-and-mesh with a brand-new team on a mission was risky. Doing it on a mission that was supposed to last upwards of a month was extremely risky. Too many things could go wrong. There would be no way to solve any potential conflicts – not until afterwards.

But the mission was critical, so they would deal.

Kakashi had chosen his team well.

Tsunade rolled her eyes at him. “You shut up, Hatake. Be glad I’ve let you keep your own assignment. I can have you on Iwa border patrol so fast your shadow will have to catch up.”

Kakashi inclined his head in a parody of a bow, and didn’t wait for a dismissal to take his leave.

x

Tsunade dismissed Nara and watched the window where Hatake had disappeared. After a moment she sighed. “Young people. What do you even need Naruto for?”

Jiraiya fell into the Hokage’s super-comfortable chair and rubbed his forehead – a clear indication that he was fighting a headache. “Last-ditch. Umino came to me yesterday with a concern that needs to be addressed post haste, but the only plan I have is about as crazy as an Orochimaru special.”

Tsunade choked. And went to pour herself a cup of sake. She considered asking for details, but if it was Umino’s initiative it was about Sound, and she had happily washed her hands off that whole clusterfuck.

“What about your pet?” she inquired instead. She had every right to be worried, since the critter was presently occupying one of the bedrooms at her house.

She had a house (she had two houses). It was a huge damn adjustment (she had never intended to accept anything Dan left her in his will, but logistics had become nightmarish, and Dan had as good as saved her from beyond the grave).

She was working on it.

Jiraiya dismissively waved his hand. “Asleep.”

“Again?”

Still,” Jiraiya corrected her. “He’s catching up on thirteen years of missed sleep. Shizune-chan says there’s no need to worry yet. She’s keeping an eye on him.”

“As long as you’re not ‘keeping an eye’ on her.”

“She sure grew up, neh?” he tried half-heartedly.

Tsunade hit him, although mostly out of obligation.

It seemed to lift his mood a little.

x

“I walked home past the Wisteria Crescent. Heard the news.” The armor was a bother. Taking it off might have counted as exercise – it certainly demanded a lot of flexibility and problem-solving. With the difficult part over, Iruka pulled the mesh shirt over his head, chucked it on top of the discarded pile of armor parts, and made a stop at the bathroom.

Once the most pressing problem was solved, he walked into the kitchen. There was an almost-fresh pot of tea there, an unused cup readied on the tray, and the shards of a second cup in the sink. He poured and drank the tea without taking his eyes off the shards.

Well, it could have been worse. At least Kakashi was at home.

“Asuma got down on his knees to beg Hokage-sama to reassign Sasuke,” he reported without raising his voice. Kakashi was just in the bedroom; the door remained ajar, and there was no other noise to interfere.

“Hm.”

“Sakura put Kiba in the Hospital,” Iruka continued, making his way to the bedroom.

“Good on her,” Kakashi gritted out, staring out of the window at the Hokage Mountain, where the hired Doton specialists were making the preparations for crafting Tsunade-sama’s portrait.

“I know this is important to you,” said Iruka. The whole situation frightened him a bit, because there was little that could have affected Kakashi as personally as this. Iruka was the emotional one in the relationship – usually it was Kakashi acting as his sardonic support pillar. “But you’re going to do it – your way, as you do everything. Even if you have to set out without Naruto. I’ll send him out to catch up with you-”

Faster than he could react, a hand covered his mouth and he was pushed backwards. He landed on the bed, and half of Kakashi’s weight landed on him; air was punched out of his chest and he choked, but he couldn’t move, caged in by his partner’s immovable limbs.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing.

If this was what Kakashi needed – to hold onto Iruka, to feel like there was a solid anchor for him in this chaotic, unpredictable world – then Iruka could remain still for a while, clench his teeth and abide the physical contact.

x

Being on a mission with Jiraiya was terrible.

Naruto had loved going on a mission with Iruka-sensei. On the other hand, he was mostly used to Team Seven, too – former Team Seven, now – so he knew how to power through all the annoyance and stupidity.

Jiraiya was fine when he shut up. When he talked, though – talked like Naruto was a random gennin who had unexpectedly impressed the great and powerful Legendary Sannin, and was thus entitled to some special attention and maybe, if he deserved it, some training one day – it was all Naruto could do to bite his tongue and not act so unprofessionally that he would have disappointed Iruka-sensei and earned Kana-san’s displeasure.

Naruto could pretend that Jiraiya was just a stranger. He could. Totally.

He kinda wished he had a book to read so he could act like he was focused on that and not listening to the old man at all, ‘cause Dog-sensei was absolutely onto something with that. But not Icha Icha. Naruto would not give Jiraiya the satisfaction of knowing that he had read any of his books.

Thank Inari for Pakkun’s warnings.

He wished he could summon his hunt, but if he was having trouble not yelling at Jiraiya, there was not even the slightest chance that any of his ninken would not try to rip a chunk out of the Sage. Naruto didn’t have a problem with this result in principle, but he didn’t want Jiraiya to know that he knew.

Not yet. Not until Jiraiya had thoroughly hanged himself on the little rope Naruto gave him.

Finally, finally the destination of their trip came within sight.

It was a roadside inn, the kind that sprung up along frequently travelled roads wherever the towns were too far apart. Sometimes new towns grew around them, if the location was good.

See? Naruto did too listen to Iruka’s lectures at the Academy. Occasionally.

“You’ll be meeting one of my contacts,” Jiraiya said, slowing down to a more civilian-like pace. At a snail pace, he walked up to the inn and waited on the lawn in front of the door.

Not even five minutes later a waitress came out onto the porch for a smoke break. Spotting Jiraiya, she hopped down the stairs and approached.

“Natsuko-san!” Jiraiya called out, smiley and loud like Naruto at his most obnoxious.

“Jiraiya-sama,” said the woman-

Wait, what?

Naruto’s eyes were seeing a woman; she was thin and not very pretty (not ugly, just her face was way too hard, with features sharper than a kunai), and the cigarettes she smoked were also thin. Naruto’s ears heard a low, soft voice with just a little rasp to it.

His nose smelled a boy, one who stank of tobacco only because he had spent time inside the inn where other people smoked. A shinobi, definitely. A very, very sick one. Sick like old hag Suzuran had been sick. Dying sick. And also-

“This is Naruto-kun, my protégé, ha ha ha.” Jiraiya pretended he didn’t see the glower Naruto aimed at him. “Naruto, I want you to teach Natsuko-san here that technique you invented at the Academy.”

“Oiroke no Jutsu?” Naruto didn’t expect that. And he especially didn’t like the idea that he could be ordered to give up his personal, signature technique to anyone. Could he even be ordered? He wasn’t sure. Jiraiya must have intentionally waited with the explanation until now, so Naruto wouldn’t have anyone to ask.

“You only called it ‘oiroke’ because you used it to change into naked women,” said the old man, sounding royally amused by the jutsu that had probably saved Naruto’s life several times over. “Technically it should be called the Kage Henge. And it probably counts as kinjutsu, too, damnit.”

Natsuko-san’s eyes bore into Naruto with interest. “You invented a kinjutsu at the Academy? Impressive.”

Naruto squirmed. He tried to suppress the urge to turn around and run as fast as he could. “It was just a coincidence-”

“Still-”

“Less flirting, more work,” Jiraiya cut in. “I’m busy – I’ll come back in a few hours, and you better be done with the teaching. Or I’ll find a way to motivate you properly.”

He body-flickered away.

Natsuko-san glanced back at the inn, and then closed her eyes. “He is gone. And I have to go back to work in seven minutes.”

Naruto wondered if the nearest brothel was so close that Jiraiya could get there, complete his ‘business transaction’ and return so fast. He wasn’t going to ask.

Instead, checking that he had his new wallet with him and could afford a warm meal (ramen, hopefully?) he suggested: “You want to copy the jutsu with the Sharingan? That way you can get back to work and I’ll have time… for… lunch…” He trailed off as he noticed Natsuko-san’s expression.

Natsuko-san stared at him, wide-eyed. “I did not expect that.”

Chapter Text

Naruto felt like someone had hit him over the head hard, except that it didn’t hurt. “That’s me – Number One Unpredictable Ninja of Konoha. For the record, this is freaking me out, and I’d really appreciate it if you could, you know, explain. Or hint. Or just kinda reassure me that you’re not going to turn around and use this to try and kill the Lamppost, ‘cause he’s a jerk but he’s an ally. Please, please, please tell me that Raiya-ji knows who you really are.”

“Raiya-? Ah. He does. Let me propose a trade, Uzumaki-san. A reassurance in exchange for your method.” The kunoichi (was it okay to call her a ‘kunoichi’ if she was a boy?) dispelled the illusion of the cigarette. “I have worn this disguise for years, and even those that identified me as a shinobi had not arrived at such an outrageous conclusion.” After a little hesitation she asked: “Why ‘the Lamppost’?”

Naruto hopped on the spot. His whole body was thrumming with energy, and there was no outlet. “So, I’ll tell you how I knew you’re you and you’ll explain why I don’t have to be worried ‘bout you…? Deal.”

Natsuko-san sent a shadow clone back to take over the rest of her shift, and led Naruto around the (at the moment empty) stables and in through the back door. There was a narrow staircase just past the vegetable pantry, leading both down to the cellar and up to the rooms. Not the rooms you could rent, though – only the inn’s owner and the staff lived here.

Natsuko-san’s bedroom was tiny. It was about half of Naruto’s bedroom, and that was saying something.

There, with the door closed behind them, she more hinted than actually explained that there had once been a conspiracy, a counter-conspiracy, and a counter-counter-conspiracy, and some unscrupulous powerful people used all that confusion to get rid of their political enemies, and basically the sad result was Natsuko disappearing into Jiraiya’s intelligence network to be useful to her village despite being officially missing.

Naruto decided it made sense – and postponed the good cry he would need to deal with this until later – so he revealed his secret in return: “You smell like the Lamp- I mean, Sasuke.”

“No, I don’t,” protested Natsuko-san. “If anything, I smell like the inn.” She did. Sake and slightly burnt food (their cook wasn’t a very good cook) and the customers, who themselves were like a walking, smoking sweaty rubbish heap.

“Sure,” Naruto agreed. “And under that you smell like metal and herbs and a little like blood. But under that you smell almost exactly like Sasuke.” He snorted. “Your faaace.”

x

Sasuke was not especially sensitive to the shifting social tides in the village, but after he had noticed the third ANBU (and, considering that, he had no idea how many he had not noticed) lurking on the roofs with the vantage points to see over the Compound wall, he summoned Asuka.

“We are solitary creatures,” pointed out the pelican. “Why keep a flock if it just eats your food and craps into your nest?”

I eat their food,” Sasuke pointed out.

“You’re not that bad at fishing.” Asuka alit on top of the training post. “But until you grow a brain, I guess I saddled myself with taking care of you, egg-yolk. I’ll find out what I can.”

x

“The jutsu, please,” Natsuko-san said amiably, but with forcefulness that raised the little hairs on Naruto’s forearms.

“Another deal?” suggested Naruto.

Natsuko-san frowned. “Are you not willing?”

“You’re the only one to ask. Raiya-ji just ordered me, and that was the first I’ve heard ‘bout it,” Naruto explained, just in case Natsuko-san did not know what kind of jerk they were dealing with – although chances were that Natsuko-san knew, and was used to dealing with worse jerks (like, for just a random example, S-class missing nin). “But the thing is, can he do that? I don’t think so. Clan techniques are all secret, and even if I didn’t have a clan-” He wasn’t sure if a dead clan counted. “-I bet a lot of people would be unhappy with this precedent.”

He was proud of himself for remembering the word. And being able to use it.

“You are right. I was not aware-”

“I’m not saying I’m unwilling.” But Jiraiya said it was a kinjutsu, and he had brought Naruto out here to teach it to an S-class missing nin, so it must have been valuable. Naruto would have been stupid to just give it up.

And not just stupid. It would mean that he didn’t value something he created, and he did. He valued his things, especially if he had to work for them.

“Ah. I see. What do you wish for in recompense?”

Naruto knew ‘recompense’ from the Missions Desk, so he didn’t get tripped up. “I want your promise that you won’t teach it to anybody else.”

Natsuko-san showed a little startle, as though she had expected Naruto to ask for something more tangible and less useful. She smiled a little, mostly on one side, and that half-smile seemed almost genuine. “As you wish, Naruto-kun. I swear on my nindo that I will not teach anyone the jutsu you show me today.”

“Got your whirly eyes on?”

“Yes, Naruto-kun.”

Oiroke no Jutsu!”

A flow of dark, bluish hair covered Naruto’s face. He reached up and adjusted his kanzashi. “Hi, Natsuko-san. My name is Naruko. It is a great pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure is entirely this one’s, Naruko-hime,” replied Natsuko-san, immediately shifting into their new respective social roles.

Happiness bubbled inside Naruto’s chest. This was great! They could have so much fun! “I have heard much about you. Some of my honourable husband’s friends speak of you very highly.”

“This one is not worthy,” said Natsuko-san, bowing deeply.

Naruto ruthlessly suppressed a chuckle. He released the transformation and shrugged. “Anyway, you can do it with the dog, too, like Henge, ‘cause I was ripping off Henge when I started, but it’s like hundred times easier to do with rat.”

“Most shadow jutsu are,” agreed Natsuko-san.

x

Sasuke – inexplicably, incongruently – thought of Naruto.

Would Naruto help?

In the past it would never have even occurred to him, but after the way Naruto took Sasuke’s assignment to Team Ten, how he had helped without even thinking about it, how he had even made Sakura halfway useful… yes, if Sasuke asked politely, Naruto would help him get out.

At this point there was no room for dignity.

x

Jiraiya, feeling quite bouncy and high on life – oh, the lovely Amako-chan could take thirty years off of a man’s age! – found the two kids sitting on the porch in front of the inn, hidden under what from Natsuko passed for a very mild genjutsu.

He circled round and snuck up behind their backs. “Mission accomplished, Naruto?”

Neither of them jumped. Jiraiya pouted. This was a completely unfair letdown.

Naruto sniffed, grimaced, and mumbled something that sounded strangely like: “Shouda at least showered.”

Jiraiya wondered what they had gotten up to, but looking at their faces he could dream on – neither was going to tell him anything. Except Naruto’s cold: “Yes.” Not even an address.

This wasn’t good. If things continued in this vein, taking Naruto on a training trip would amount to mutual torture.

“I’ve got ideas on improving that technique,” he offered. He needed to hook the kid somehow. “A stabilisation seal so you don’t have to keep the transformation up yourself-”

“You could design a tie-in seal to the jutsu, but you couldn’t teach it?” asked Naruto.

Natsuko looked over the top of his head at Jiraiya. Her eyes were mutely asking ‘seriously?’ and for once Jiraiya didn’t have a response under than an equally mute ‘who – me?’. Graceful even in defeat, the gallant Jiraiya generously handed the fruit of his efforts to his agent-

Natsuko snatched the tag out Jiraiya’s hand and promptly handed it over to Naruto, who secreted it away somewhere on his person.

The quickness of the action momentarily stumped Jiraiya – should he strip the kid? Should he bludgeon him with KI until the kid cried and gave his loot back? Should he just beat it out of him-?

“I am sure you can recreate it, Jiraiya-sama,” said Natsuko, cool as ten inches of steel between your ribs.

Jiraiya, further unbalanced, looked between the two co-conspirators.

What the sweet Icha Icha hell had happened here?

He couldn’t even get a frank report from his agent with Naruto sitting there and listening to every word. Discreet the boy could be, of that Jiraiya had no doubt – but he was a true-blooded hellion, the son of the Red-Hot Habanero, and Jiraiya wasn’t going to hand him anything more than he had to.

Because, contrary to popular opinion, that seal was something he had designed for long-term shadow clones, and which he had been going to give to Natsuko anyway, so she could have a clone stationed at the inn semi-permanently. He was only assuming that it would work with the shadow transformation, too. It might need tweaking. He definitely needed feedback.

Basically, he needed to get rid of the kid and down to some actual work.

“Hey, Naruto…”

The boy climbed to his feet and stood at attention, blank-faced. He did not give even a damn inch.

“Now I’ve got some business here,” Jiraiya said resignedly. “And something I should really take care of a few towns over. Take this to Tsunade-hime, would you?” He pulled a storage scroll full of intel out of his haori and gave it to the boy.

The chances that anything would happen to it were minimal, and it wasn’t as though he didn’t usually use runners. The scroll was sealed, and only about five people in the village knew how to unseal it.

x

Naruto took the scroll and stashed it away. He didn’t speak, ‘cause he was sure his happiness at not having to endure a bitten tongue all the way back to Konoha would have showed. He only just managed to keep from yelling ‘freedom!’ at the top of his voice.

“Goodbye, Naruto-kun. It was nice to meet you.”

“Likewise, Natsuko-san. Ja ne!”

And he was off. The only thing missing right now was…

Kuchiyose no Jutsu!”

x

Iruka had finished for the day and was on his way home – surprisingly early, it was barely even dark outside – when someone stepped out of the shadows and into his way.

“Sasuke-kun?”

The boy looked… terrible. Iruka felt something in his chest clench. He missed children, missed teaching, and even though Sasuke was not one of his students anymore, that did not mean Iruka had suddenly stopped caring.

Could it be…? Was Iruka responsible for the violet bruises under the boy’s eyes and for the lines of despair etched in his face? Surely… surely not…?

“I need to find Naruto,” said Sasuke.

“H-he’s on a mission-”

“When will he be back?”

“Tomorrow.” Hopefully, Iruka added in his mind. If Jiraiya kept him any longer, Kakashi might go postal and have his hunt track him down. “What-”

But Sasuke was already gone.

x

Jiraiya kicked his feet up onto the next chair and took a lengthy, luxuriant pull from his pipe. “He took a real shine to you, that brat.”

“Did he,” deadpanned Natsuko.

Jiraiya wasn’t aware of what he had done to offend this time, but he still remembered the consequences of his last conflict with his agent, and dearly hoped never to have to relive that. Genjutsu users were the worst.

“The technique will be useful, but what makes it necessary right at this moment?” she demanded.

Jiraiya took another deep pull from the pipe, sighed, and explained the whole foolish, ridiculous, insane plan that he had concocted to get out of the corner into which he got pressed by the blackmail-and-bribery combo of a goddamn chuunin. He had wanted to teach that Umino kid, too, once upon a time, only after the unfortunate Ero Ero Paradigm business the kid was not so secretly planning to use Jiraiya’s fragile innocent body to test out whether death by papercuts was a feasible assassination method, and Jiraiya somehow felt that the harmoniousness of their teacher-student relationship would have suffered for it.

And no, Jiraiya wasn’t nervous about teaching Naruto. At all. The close relationship between Naruto and Umino? The silent treatment all the way from Konoha to this place? The rumours spread around Konoha lately about Jiraiya running away because he had refused to legitimise his bastard child (with various suggestions and betting pools on said bastard child’s identity)? Bah. He wasn’t the slightest bit worried.

Natsuko listened to the entire sordid tale, then contemplated for a while, and eventually inquired: “You intend to put my little brother to work in the service industry?”

x

Sasuke locked the gates of the Compound, activated all the security seals he knew how to use, and sat down at the kitchen table to compose one report and one letter. The report, he knew, would have to be scrupulously truthful in a way none of his reports for Team Seven’s mission ever really were.

This time there was no margin of error. It would be his word against Team Ten’s. He could not be caught in a lie, or even in uncertainty. Fortunately, Sasuke had an excellent memory (and for the latter part of the confrontation he had a picture-perfect Sharingan memory), so that was not a problem.

The letter… the letter was harder.

But he could do it. He could. Compared to what would happen to him if he didn’t, this had to be easy, right? Right. Now, what might the dead last want as an incentive?

Sasuke was ready to offer just about anything short of an eye (he needed both of those to kill that man).

x

“It will be good for him,” Jiraiya said lightly. “Suffering builds character.”

Natsuko looked at him like she was considering which of the poisons she had available would work best. “He has suffered, and from what I have seen it built nothing.”

Even in the guise of a civilian, without emanating any killing intent whatsoever, her tone of voice made Jiraiya’s reproductive organs attempt to crawl inside his body.

Natsuko’s eyes were dark – shitty damn past, too much bad killing to remember – and her expression stony. “Do you believe he will learn patience?”

“Unlikely.” Jiraiya himself had learnt it only at a much older age, and only after he had been faced with the consequences of his recklessness.

“The only thing this will accomplish is burning the Natsuko identity,” she concluded.

“I’m not going to collate you!” Jiraiya snapped, rolling his eyes. He was not actually stupid, no matter what Orochimaru used to say. “I admit, it would be immensely practical if you two could just switch off being Natsuko, but he has little skill, no training, no patience, and I’ve heard he doesn’t accept instruction. I can’t drop him into the deep end of intelligence work and expect him to swim.” Well, he could if he weren’t afraid of what Natsuko would do to him if the kid died. And Jiraiya was very afraid – it wouldn’t have been anything as simple and sweet as death.

Natsuko stared out of the window, pensive, or perhaps melancholy. Jiraiya sighed. He knew she chose this appearance on purpose – there was nothing ample or curvy about her, just so he had nothing to admire. So cruel.

“Being a woman is difficult enough, but being a woman the people here have known for years – even the best of my agents would be hard-pressed to do that.” Jiraiya had no idea how she did it. He had tried going female – it made research ever so much easier – but his masculinity just kept shining through and bursting out of him. Oh, well. “Maybe it’s time for Natsuko to move on. We could re-establish the identity elsewhere for you to share.”

“Wait until you have evaluated him before you start planning, Jiraiya-sama,” said Natsuko, tone of voice confirming that suspicion of melancholia. “I am not at all certain that this is feasible.”

Chapter Text

Naruto went through the security routine at the gates – for the first time he did it all by himself, and it was really just as annoying as Dog-sensei always made it seem, and he couldn’t stop yawning, even though it wasn’t even midnight yet – but didn’t quite get to the Hokage Tower for the mandatory check-in before a huge shadow covered the lamplight and then descended on him.

He jumped clear. Rikku crouched for a leap, but did not attack. Juuji growled threateningly.

Annai, however, only looked up and grinned. “Hey, it’s the Lamppost’s summon! Hi, summon-san!”

Apparently, the pelican’s treatment of Sasuke had made an impression on both Naruto’s canine siblings.

The bird landed on the railing on the outer staircase of the nearest house and glared balefully. “You. Hn.” For Inari’s sake, was Sasuke contagious? “You just try scent-marking my summoner and-”

“No! No worries!” Naruto yelled out over the terrible description of a terrible nightmare. “He’s all yours! All yours!”

The pelican turned her head to the side and rolled one suspicious eye. “He better. Now, my summoner wrote you a letter, gator bait. He sweated blood over it, so you will give it the attention it deserves.”

Is it opposite day? Naruto wondered. Or has Sasuke found out about Naruto’s mission? Nah, no way.

No way, unless it was all a setup – unless somebody wanted Sasuke to find out and go off the deep end, and if that was the case then Naruto would get involved. Even if it meant tying Sasuke up and delivering him mummified to Natsuko-san, who would probably have to genjutsu him to hell and back to un-brainwash him or brainwash him back to normal or-

“Are you listening to me, stripeless?” demanded the pelican.

“Sure,” Naruto replied, and took the damn letter. He read it. Then he read it again. No, it hadn’t changed in the meantime. He looked up, utterly confused. “Did the bastard hit his head?”

“No,” snapped the bird, who herself had hit the bastard’s head enough that it might have resulted in brain damage.

Naruto absently scratched between Juuji’s ears, thus distracting him from the letter, which the ninken had been trying to read. Rikku had already read it over Naruto’s shoulder. Annai, in the meantime, was too busy admiring the pelican to care about Sasuke’s message.

Naruto nodded to himself. “I’ve got to report to Tsunade, but the Compound is my next stop.”

‘cause there was a line. And this crap crossed it.

x

It had been a long time since Ino had seen her Dad so angry.

The Yamanaka were pale, and when they flushed they flushed horribly; Ino’s Dad was approximately the colour of a spider lily as he tried to keep the rage inside.

Ino shook her head. “That’s not… that’s not what happened. That’s not how it happened!”

“I know you have a crush on that boy-”

“I do, but that doesn’t make me stupid!” She realised she was shouting, but couldn’t seem to calm down. She was sure that they were two matching spider lilies right now. “I am telling you, that’s not what happened!”

“He did not attack you? Then what happened to your hair?!”

“It got scorched off by a ninjutsu, oh my god, Dad, training accidents happen all the damn time – two months ago Chouza-ji-chan gave you a broken arm-!”

“I spoke with Asuma! That did not happen during a spar-!”

“The hell does Asuma-sensei know? He was asleep-!”

“Then Uchiha shouldn’t have been using ninjutsu-!”

“If we only trained when sensei’s awake, we’d never get anywhere! He’s like another Shikamaru! At least Sasuke-kun takes being a ninja seriously-!”

“Enough!” Ino’s Dad roared.

Ino took a step back. Then another. And another. And then she ran out the front door and slammed it after herself. This was some… some ridiculous crusade against Sasuke-kun, and they were using her against him.

And her Dad wasn’t listening.

x

Sasuke opened the gate, let Naruto in and closed the gate again. The security seals flashed and reactivated.

Aside from the various village-appointed guardians mostly interested in Sasuke’s bloody inheritance, Naruto was the first visitor he had had in years. Obviously, Kakashi had somehow managed to get in and stroll around, but not when Sasuke was at home, so that didn’t count as a visit. Thankfully, he was the only one (not even ANBU managed to enter the Compound) so it was probably the Sharingan that let him pass.

“I’m going to need details,” said Naruto.

Sasuke nodded. The loathsome squeeze in his chest was gratitude, he knew, to Naruto for coming, for coming alone, for not laughing, and for treating this seriously. For not commenting about the holes in the roofs of the nearby houses, about the fire damage to many of the structures, about the oppressive silence and emptiness.

Naruto noticed – of course he noticed – but he, surprisingly, had the smarts to keep his mouth shut about it.

“It escalated too fast,” Sasuke said quietly. His voice was hoarse. “And too far.” His throat hurt, but he took a sip of his chamomile tea and did his best to describe the whole situation to his ex-teammate.

Chuunin, he thought. Is this why?

Huh.

Naruto listened quietly, even though he didn’t stay still for five seconds at a time. He fidgeted, drank the tea Sasuke poured him and fidgeted some more. Eventually, once the story was out, he rubbed his forehead and puffed up his cheeks.

It made him look like a village idiot again.

This impression, Sasuke realised for the first time, was a lie.

“Let me think ‘bout this,” Naruto grumbled, setting his elbows on top of the table. “Hm, and feed me, bastard. ‘s the least you can do.”

Without a word, Sasuke stood and went to the stove to cook a late, late dinner.

x

“Shikamaru! Shikamaru!”

Shikamaru rolled over on his bed to face the wall and pulled his blanket over his head. Nothing short of a village-wide alert would make him get up. Possibly if his bed was on fire… Nah. Chances were his Mother would put him out before he acquired any significant injuries.

“Shikamaru, if you don’t open this door, I’m going to break it!” Fists pounded on said door.

Shikamaru pressed his palm to the ear that wasn’t already buried in the sound-muffling depths of the pillow.

With a crack the bolt broke, and the door was pushed to the side. Ino fell through it, breathing hard, with little hitching sounds that suggested she was crying. Shikamaru couldn’t recall witnessing Ino cry for real in the past few years.

Chouji cried more than she did. In fact, Shikamaru himself cried more, especially at those times when his Mother decided to personally supervise his physical conditioning.

In light of this, Shikamaru deigned to roll over and pull the blanket down. He did not actually want his bed to be set on fire, and Ino in tears was an unpredictable creature.

Holy mother of the Sage, he thought, catching a glimpse of her face in the light from the hallway, she was distraught. He hadn’t known she was capable of this depth of emotion.

“What,” he grumbled.

“Shika, you have to help. I messed up and now Sasuke-kun-”

Shikamaru groaned and pulled the blanket back up. ‘Sasuke-kun’ was an instant nope from him.

“No, wait, this is different. They’re going to section him!”

Good damn idea, Shikamaru thought. Finally. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.

“Because of me!” Ino wailed. “I didn’t mean to do this!”

Shikamaru was treated to a retelling of events that made the Chuunin Exams (rogue Sannin included) sound like a perfectly sedate and rational affair. Some days he wondered if he would not have done better in some other village. Maybe even a civilian one. He would probably enjoy fishing.

Whole days to look at the clouds. He was sure crabs were great conversationalists, compared to some of the people he knew.

“So,” he said once Ino trailed off into sniffling and weeping (not the crocodile tears, but full-on ugly blubbering with snot and blotchy cheeks), “you escalated your prank-”

“It’s not a prank!” she gasped out. “I want him!”

“-your pigtail-pulling,” Shikamaru amended, “and assaulted him-”

“It’s not assault! It’s just the only way I can get a reaction out of him!”

“-assaulted him,” Shikamaru repeated emphatically, “to the point that you drove the guy to the verge of a nervous breakdown. In self-defense he harmed your hair, and you tried to kill him-”

“I did not!” Ino protested. “It was just like… just like I fight with you or Chouji! A spar! With the requisite amount of drama!”

“Ino,” Shikamaru said, exasperation rising rapidly, “I know what you can do with your killing intent. Chouji does, too. But Uchiha does not. He thought you were genuinely trying to kill him.”

Ino made a whining sound from the back of her throat and burst into a new wave of sobbing.  She shuffled on her knees closer to Shikamaru’s bed and pawed at his leg. “Shika, Shika, you’ve got to help him!”

“No, I don’t.”

“Shikamaru, please.”

This wasn’t fair. Shikamaru was intimately familiar with the whole range of Ino’s cons, and this was as genuine as anything. How was he supposed to resist? Ino’s eyes were wide blue pools of crystalline sadness and, okay, he was not made of stone.

Much as he often wished he were, because maybe then troublesome women would leave him alone, and he could get through his life peacefully with no responsibilities, endless cloud-watching time and only the occasional pigeon shitting on him as opposed to a whole damn ninja village.

He laboriously pulled himself up to a sitting position. “What a pain…”

x

Just as he expected, the moment Sasuke turned up for ‘team training’, he was apprehended by a couple of ANBU and escorted to the Psychiatric Department building attached to the Hospital. It was better than if he had been dumped straight at the Institution, where they put the cases slated for sectioning, but he did not have high hopes of being released.

He only had Naruto’s desperate plan and a well of anger seven years deep. It was boiling now – ready for explosion after they left him to cook for two hours in a waiting room. Morons! Did they forget he had been trained for tardiness by Hatake Kakashi, who took it as a personal mission to prepare his gennin for the wartime hurry-up-and-wait routine?

After those two hours, the latest in a long line of Sarutobi fuck-ups let himself into the room.

“I had to report it,” said Asuma, half-explanation and half-excuse.

He didn’t owe Sasuke anything. In fact, Sasuke had no idea what the chain-smoking slacker was even doing here. Had they made him come because he was now technically Sasuke’s jounin-sensei? What a farce.

Sasuke doubted anyone had believed his account, no matter how detailed his report had been. After all, he had a history of violence against his peers, didn’t he? He knew that Inuzuka had reported him as he had threatened, never mind that at the time Sasuke had been so high on adrenalin he might have attacked the Hokage himself if provoked.

“And I expect you framed it as an unprovoked attack, too,” Sasuke snapped, once the pressure in his chest became too great, and it was speak or vomit. “After all, what is years of systematic harassment, escalating from stalking to sexual? I guess the Council wants my genes badly enough that they are fine with a gaggle of thirteen-year-olds trying their luck literally throwing themselves at me.”

He thought back to what Naruto had told him. Who knew how many of those thirteen-year-olds were actually older and trained for it? Sasuke shuddered. And shuddered some more. He couldn’t seem to stop. He put his arms around himself in a parody of a hug-

Asuma stepped closer and raised his arm-

Sasuke leapt away and up, crouching on the wall and holding up a Tiger seal. He would burn himself, too, if he released a great fireball inside this room, but he felt like it would have been worth it.

“Calm down, kid,” said the jounin. He made a show of backing away and sitting down. He stared mostly at the floor, but he did glance at Sasuke briefly – a blink-of-an-eye fast assessment. “I’ve got to admit, I didn’t expect this. Why didn’t you tell anybody?”

Sasuke sneered.

Who the hell was there to tell? The Academy teachers never did anything (even after a bunch of girls had cornered him in the boys’ bathroom), and the pathetic parody of the Military Police that replaced his slaughtered clan had laughed him out the door that one time he had naively tried (when the Ohmura twins jumped him on his way home from the market and destroyed all his groceries in their mutual fight over which one he liked better).

The only thing that saved him from home invasion and outright assault were the seals placed on the walls of the Compound. It was one of the reasons why he had never moved out of the house where his parents were murdered, no matter what the psych people said about him living there.

The Psychiatric Department was another bunch of useless, brain-dead bootlickers.

Asuma scratched at his beard. “The way Ino’s acting – it’s annoying, yeah. But I guess I never thought of it as frightening.”

Sasuke wanted to say he wasn’t scared of one pathetic little girl playing at a kunoichi, but this was the point – the point Naruto told him to make and then moan about as much as he could. Stoic poise was worth shit to him now. Konoha was, and had been for years, enemy ground. He was tired.

It wasn’t Ino as such. It was that Ino was one of many, and they never seemed to sleep, so Sasuke had to be constantly on alert, and this had passed exhausting two years ago. Fine, he admitted it: he couldn’t deal with this. No, he was not being histrionic. He was being harassed.

“You thought it was funny,” he hissed.

Asuma made a pathetic attempt to deny the accusation.

x

Sasuke walked out of the Psychiatric Department building. On his own.

“Did it work?” asked Asuka, who had been waiting for him outside the whole time, substituting bloody-mindedness for patience.

“We’ll see,” replied Sasuke. “But I think it did.”

“Huh.” Asuka spread and re-folded her wings. “That dog-kid is not half stupid.”

Sasuke shrugged. It was becoming increasingly obvious to him that he didn’t understand anything.

x

Iruka put his head in his hands, closed his eyes, and tried to chase away the compunctions. He needed to concentrate. This was important work. He couldn’t afford to get distracted-

“Headache?” asked Tsunade-sama’s shadow clone.

Iruka shook his head. He knew how to work through headaches – he was an Academy teacher. This was worse. He had never done well with guilt. “I made a mistake. It may cost one of my students their career.”

The clone shrugged. “That is what happens when you make the decisions. Lives, friends, family, careers. You will get used to it, Umino.”

Iruka shook his head. He could explain – but then again, could he? How would he explain that he, a shinobi, a chuunin, a teacher and an administrator had played a prank and misjudged its consequences to the point that what should have been innocent fun turned into a complete disaster?

“Well, if you don’t feel like sharing, be so kind and focus.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama.” Although, truthfully, Iruka had no idea how. He prayed to kami that Jiraiya would come through and save the boy.

Chapter Text

“N-naruto-kun!”

“Breathe, Hinata,” admonished Kiba-kun, rolling his eyes.

Hinata obediently took a deep breath and stopped trying to squirm out from under her teammate’s arm. Kiba-kun had made touching a habit, and Hinata did not really mind. It was nice. Warm. Reassuring.

She just – well, a part of her hadn’t wanted Naruto-kun to see.

Another part was breathlessly awaiting his reaction, hoping for-

“Hey, guys!” Naruto-kun cheerfully called out.

-something that obviously was not going to happen. It was childish of her, this… this need to call attention to herself. She was very lucky to have Naruto’s friendship. Or perhaps just his friendliness, but she could work on the building of their friendship, as long as he was receptive.

“I don’t know if you’re allowed chocolate,” Naruto-kun said quietly, coming over to the bed and reaching under his t-shirt, “so let’s not tell the nurses. Enjoy.” He pulled out a flat white box with a thin purple line bisecting it at the golden ratio.

“I-is that…?”

“From my favourite patisserie,” he said. And then scowled at Kiba-kun. “Which means if anyone but Hinata so much as sniffs the chocolate, I’ll put the fear of the werewolf ghosts in you. That goes for Akamaru, too.” He paused and counted on his fingers, before adding: “Oh, and Shino.”

Hinata giggled. Naruto-kun was funny.

“Go sit on a porcupine,” Kiba-kun muttered, sticking out his tongue.

Hinata held the pretty little box in her hands. She moved to open it, but Naruto-kun put his hand over hers, and she forgot how to breathe. She became paralysed, motionless except for the rush of her blood which went all, predictably, to her head.

“No sharing, either, Hinata,” Naruto-kun admonished. It sounded playful, but he meant it. “Oh, and Tenten says hi.”

Tenten-chan had visited Hinata to confirm that Hinata had accepted Neji-nii-san’s apology. She was very kind, offered to deliver Hinata’s response to Neji-nii-san’s latest letter, and invited Hinata to call her Tenten-chan. It was all very… very unexpected. But nice.

Hinata supposed maybe she finally made a girl friend.

Oh, and apparently Naruto-kun was hinting that there was a letter hidden inside the box, so Hinata definitely could not open it in front of either of her teammates.

Still blushing but feeling far less lightheaded, she finally remembered what it was she had wanted to say but hadn’t because of her exhaustion and the drugs. “Oh, Naruto-kun! I am so sorry! I forgot to congratulate you!”

“Congratulate me?” he repeated, confused.

“Yeah, congratulate him?” added Kiba-kun.

Akamaru-kun barked. Kiba-kun looked down at him and said: “Oh, that. Right.”

“Of course!” Hinata insisted. “Congratulations on your promotion, Naruto-kun! I always knew you could do it!” He could do anything he really wanted to do, she believed that firmly. “But I have been here all this time, and I don’t have a present-”

“Don’t worry about that, Hinata!” Naruto-kun grinned widely. “What I really want is for you to get well, and kick some serious arse. That will make me happy!”

Hinata’s blush and lightheadedness came back full force, but she didn’t need to think – there was only one thing she could say now: “I promise!”

x

The man sitting in the conference room seemed far too young for the position of an ambassador. But then, the same could have been said of Iruka, so Iruka bowed (not too deeply; he represented the winning side here) and took his seat.

“Kaguya Kimimaro,” the Sound ninja said softly.

“Umino Iruka,” replied Iruka. “Do you require medical attention?”

The pale stranger made an ambivalent motion with one hand. “It would not help. This has been going on for a while, and at least this way I may be of some use yet.”

Iruka nodded, and marginally relaxed. This person was such a welcome change after dealing with the other so-called jounin of the Sound village (who, he had learnt, had been promoted to jounin on the basis of surviving some twisted death tournament, without having to fulfil any other requirements). Now Iruka could finally see them moving forward with the treaty and accomplishing something.

If he never had to see Tayuya again, it would be too soon.

“Your accommodations are satisfactory?” he inquired, eyes skipping from his stack of annotated proposals to the untouched tea tray in front of Kimimaro-san. Kimimaro-san had brought no papers with him.

“I usually live in a hospital bed, Umino-san,” said the Sound ninja, and although it might have sounded sarcastic from someone else, from this man it came as a simple, bare fact. He did not confirm whether he was satisfied with his lodgings, only implied that he was used to worse.

Iruka felt a niggling of sympathy and wondered if this was the result of Orochimaru’s experimentation on this man. He had a mental image of dim, dank laboratories filled with the groaning and the screams of interred subjects.

The door behind Iruka opened and closed, and Tsunade-sama’s shadow clone approached the table. She pushed a thick, heavy blanket into Kimimaro-san’s hands and glared at him until he obediently wrapped it around himself.

The clone scoffed. “Umino, make sure he stays warm, or we’ll be holding the rest of the negotiations in the Hospital while I’m desperately trying to keep him alive long enough.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama,” replied Iruka. For one thing, it was easy to care for the well-being of someone as fragile and polite as this ambassador. For another, there was little as frightening as the wrath of an iryounin, and Iruka would prefer not to come into Tsunade-sama’s crosshairs. Again.

“And, Kaguya, this discussion is not over. Just because your medic could not do anything does not mean I can’t.” She left as fast as she had come in.

Iruka and Kimimaro-san both stared after her for a moment, before looking at one another.

This was it. Now the treaty was in Iruka’s hands.

He took a deep breath. Thought about how to open the possibly most important conversation he would ever have in his life. And said: “Would you like a fresh pot of tea?”

x

Sasuke chewed the last dumpling. “I should have just told them all I was gay when they started with this.” Just the threat of it had shut up Sakura effectively enough.

Naruto considered the idea seriously. “But then you’d have to deal with Kiba’s reaction, and I’m not sure it’d be worth it… no, wait, it would definitely be worth it. Too bad you didn’t think of it four years ago.”

Sasuke guessed he had probably been too traumatised to even notice the airheads in the beginning, and they hadn’t gotten nearly as aggressive yet. And then, by the time he woke up to the realisation that they were unbearable, their behaviour was already status quo.

He was like that frog, slowly cooked because it hadn’t occurred to him to jump out of the pot until the water had gotten too hot and it was too late.

“Hey, bastard,” Naruto said quietly.

Sasuke aimed his dango stick at him in a parody of a threatening gesture.

Naruto didn’t laugh, or challenge him to a spar. “It’s good. It’s – I honestly never expected to see you unbend enough to ask for help. And it’s good-”

It wasn’t. It was shameful. But also practical.

“-so I hope you don’t suddenly lose the ability again. And you’ve got people in your corner now, so. It doesn’t matter if your friends are not human. Human families aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”

Well, that one Sasuke had known.

x

“Will you stop that, Haruno?!”

“Stop what, Inuzuka?!”

Shino sighed and habitually pushed his glasses up his nose, even though they hadn’t slid down. “You have been leaking killing intent for the duration of the team meeting.”

Sakura stopped in the middle of raising her hand to punch the stupid, loud dog boy. Only Naruto was worse-

Che! Naruto may be more annoying, but only because you’re annoyed whenever he shows you up! inner Sakura informed her mercilessly.

“Yeah, it’s impressive for a gennin, but cut it out!” insisted dog boy, seconded by Akamaru’s growl. “If you’ve got a problem with us, suck it up or go complain! There’s got to be some place for all the unwanted cast-offs people leave behind!”

Sakura didn’t care if he’d land in the Hospital again. She would punch him-

Shannaro!

“This is absurd,” she told them in her best approximation of a calm voice (which wasn’t a good one at all). She focused on pulling her KI back – she hadn’t been aware of it.

It was difficult. Inner Sakura was refusing to part with her righteous fury.

“That woman is Suzume-sensei’s second coming,” Sakura lamented. Kurenai coddled them! How did she expect them to ever become real shinobi? Kakashi was a terrible teacher in that he never taught anything, but at least he let them try out real-life situations. “You had a C-rank, right?”

“Yeah.” Kiba nodded, already less tense as Sakura’s KI abated. “You’ve got to have at least one to get into the Chuunin Exams, and even then it’s embarrassing to have just the required one.”

“So, what did she do? Fight all the enemies herself? While you sat in a tree and watched?”

“Enemies?” Kiba shared a quick look with Shino, and then shook his head at her. “Eh, Sakura… it was just an escort mission. I mean, we were sorta attacked by bandits, but when they came close enough to see our headbands they just turned around and ran away again.”

“You’ve never killed anyone?”

“…eh… nope?” Kiba’s cheeks went pink and he looked at his sandals. “We’d have got to it in the Chuunin Exams, but then that thing happened, and…” He shrugged.

Akamaru, too, was looking at his paws.

“My kikaichu drained the chakra of one of the bandits to the point that he died,” Shino said quietly. “It was not my intent. Civilian combatants have less chakra than I expected.”

“Oh.” Kiba’s head shot up, and he stared at his teammate with guilt written all over his face. “Why didn’t you say?”

“Why? I suspected Kurenai-sensei might wish to talk to me about it.”

Kiba nodded with perfect understanding. “Makes sense.”

“Don’t you think we should tell somebody about her?” Sakura demanded. This was absurd. She had resented Kakashi, and still thought that he was entirely ridiculous-

Oh, do you? Since when is ridiculous spelled H-O-T-T?

-but even despite his atrocious habits and the lack of tutelage he provided, it had never even occurred to her to complain.

Kurenai-sensei was making her feel like she was backsliding. Team Eight was like extra Academy, and she was past that. She didn’t need someone to hold her hand – she needed someone to teach her how to break other people’s hands. And other assorted body parts.

She knew she sucked – that had been made abundantly clear to her. She needed to stop sucking, and Kurenai-sensei was all smiles and reassurance that she didn’t suck (even though she obviously did!) like she was catering to some stuck-up Clan Heir and dooming the gennin in her care to mediocrity!

If we don’t stop her, she’s gonna bleeping ruin us! inner Sakura yelled so loudly that Sakura’s ears rang with it.

“This particular approach to leadership did help Hinata in the past,” Shino pointed out. “Her severe inferiority complex impeded the whole team, and Kurenai-sensei’s reassurance mitigated the handicap.”

“Great,” Sakura grumbled, hitting her left palm with her right fist, “but I’m not Hinata. And I don’t want to be coddled.”

Akamaru barked sharply.

Sakura scowled at him. “What?”

“He suggests we compromise,” interpreted Kiba. “He says we should talk to Kurenai-sensei first. Maybe she can adjust her teacher persona for this month, so you don’t suffer for it?”

Who would have thought? drawled Inner. First Naruto-baka grows a brain, and now dog boy does, even if he’s sharing it with the actual dog.

Shino inclined his head and possibly telepathically reassured Kiba that he was in complete agreement. Or so it looked to Sakura.

So, with certified genius Shikamaru and semi-verbal Shino, how many smart-ish guys have we overlooked at the Academy?

Shut up, Sakura thought at herself.

x

“My Youthful Rival!”

Kakashi stepped to the side and let the whirlwind of green-and-pain harmlessly pass him by. It was good to be rid of the Hat. This way the ‘Hokage-san’ thing was over and done with, and he could focus on the more important things – like life’s little challenges.

Except, sadly, right now was not a good time.

“I’m on a way to a meeting,” he said, eyes trailing over well-familiar kanji. He flipped a page.

“I shan’t Choose a Challenge that would keep you longer than Three Hours-”

“Not that kind of a meeting,” Kakashi admitted. He felt a smidgen of regret, but none filtered into his voice.

Gai braked to a halt. He drooped (Kakashi was a bit tempted to water him – he quite resembled a dehydrated plant). When he spoke, his voice was low, serious, and mostly devoid of superfluous capitals: “I shall see you when you return from your Endeavour, my Rival. Keep in mind that in that particular race, the one who passes the finish line first is the loser.” Meaning ‘don’t die before me, or I’ll be sad, and that would be terrible’.

“Agree to disagree,” Kakashi replied, and went on his way to the designated training ground.

x

Naruto was a little surprised when Rikku gave him the assignment scroll, but he followed his hunt to Training Ground Twenty-Eight, and was happy to just mess around until whoever was supposed to come would come and explain what was going on.

The person who came was Kakashi. He was three minutes early. Naruto tripped over nothing, nearly fell onto his face, and stared. Then he realised that Kakashi was probably lost on the road of life and very, very late to a completely different meeting, and his presence here was just a coincidence-

“Ah, thanks for making sure Naruto got here, ninken-san,” said Dog-sensei.

Naruto tripped again; at least this time he managed to stay upright.

Rikku barked a farewell and dismissed himself, closely followed by Juuji and Annai. Their little puffs of chakra smoke vanished in the breeze.

Already the day was a little glummer.

“So, who are we waiting for, and are they the kind of people who know you’re usually three hours late?” Naruto inquired. “‘cause I think you might be falling into the hole you dug for yourself.”

“They’ll be here,” the jounin assured him. “Genma and Nishi-sensei are both punctual shinobi.”

“All guys?” Naruto was a little skeptical of this, but maybe that was a part of Iruka-sensei’s prank. Because in hindsight it was very obvious who assigned Sakura and Sasuke to their teams. Not that even Iruka-sensei could have foreseen how catastrophically badly the Team Ten incident would go.

That was what Iruka-sensei had taught Naruto: whenever you pranked someone, you ran the risk of unintended consequences. But he liked Iruka-sensei, so he was not even going to hint anything to Sasuke-bastard.

Dog-sensei shrugged from behind his current reading: Icha Icha Undercover. “I asked for Inuzuka Hana, but they said something about too many dogs on one team. Eh. I just wanted the eye-candy.”

“There’s gotta be a lot of attractive chuunin ‘round.”  Naruto looked around. Granted, right now there were only trees, a trio of badly scarred training logs and a broken kusarigama somebody just left lying there. No non-Naruto chuunin at all. “Though, obviously, we can’t have Iruka-sensei, ‘cause he’s got better things to do.”

No, wait, there was a chuunin. He body-flickered in, scattered a few leaves, and nodded at Kakashi like they were old acquaintances. He had a medic’s pouch, but nothing else on him that could give Naruto even a hint of who he was. He smelled like the Hospital, blood and bile, onigiri and plums (in his pouch) and omelet (recently eaten). He also smelled nervous, even though he didn’t show it at all.

“Maa?” Kakashi’s eye, narrowed in amused suspicion, peered over the violently purple cover at Naruto. “You think Iruka-sensei is attractive?”

“That’s a moot point, ‘cause you think so,” Naruto dissembled. One of the things Anko-nee had taught him was that you should only ever answer trick questions about a person’s significant other if you were sure you could take them both in a fight. Yeah, no.

“Did you finally grow the balls, Hatake-san?” inquired the iryounin.

Dog-sensei – only he wasn’t Dog-sensei anymore, he was now Dog-taichou – just shrugged.

Naruto knew you shouldn’t spread personal information about your allies around, even though it itched. He didn’t think the medic would be anything like Mizuki-bastard, but Naruto was still thanking Inari that Mizuki died without getting the chance to use or spread the information about Iruka-sensei Naruto had stupidly blurted.

Naruto shouldn’t have brought up Iruka-sensei at all.

Crud.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

Iryounin-san laughed. “That’s okay, kid – I knew them since before you even started the Academy, and it’s not like they were hiding it.”

Naruto deflated in relief. And then grinned. “I know, right?”

“We were hiding it,” Kakashi protested. “We are still, in fact, hiding it.”

Iryounin-san and Naruto both stared at him. Then Naruto remarked: “You’re not very good at hiding, huh?”

“You know what I am good at?” Kakashi inquired conversationally.

Naruto barely managed to swap himself with a clone before the wave of mud fell over him. The clone popped, leaving Naruto standing behind a nearby tree and feeling second-hand slimy.

“Are we sparring already?” asked a new voice. There was a guy in a standard uniform ambling up the path, hands in his pockets, expression like his mind was a thousand miles away.

“You’re that exam proctor!” Naruto exclaimed happily, bounding over to the rest of the team. He was now a chuunin who was teammates with people that proctored the Chuunin Exams. This was great!

“A-ano…” spoke an unexpected fifth person. There was a kunoichi, after all. She didn’t look like anything special – short dark hair, mesh shirt and pants, and a long brown vest that tied with a black sash. There was a medic’s pouch attached to the sash. “I was told to report here by Umino-san?”

Even Kakashi looked startled, although the only sign was the way his hand moved upward as if to reach for his hitai-ate, before he changed his mind. He clapped once.

“Let’s start with introductions. You all know me. Nishi-sensei?”

“Aokabi Nishi. Chuunin. I specialise in medical ninjutsu.” That was all kinda obvious, but the way the guy said it was so clearly a threat that Naruto decided to be a little wary until they got to know one another. He seemed cool, though, and the way he had teased Dog-taichou before was kinda neat.

“Uzumaki Naruto!” Naruto exclaimed, bouncing on the spot. This was so, so cool. “Chuunin!” That never got old. “I summon ninken like Kakashi-taichou! I’m pretty good at kicking butt and taking names, pranking people, running and hiding from ANBU… oh, and undercover.”

The fourth guy snorted so hard he almost spat the senbon he was sucking.

Naruto kept grinning, but resolved to take it as a dare. Proctor guy would learn.

“Shiranui Genma,” said proctor guy. “Tokubetsu jounin. Specialties… maa, silent assassination, I guess. I don’t suck at poisons.” He gave off Kakashi-vibes like they had come from the same ANBU unit (someone who smelled like him had occasionally taken a turn on Naruto’s protection squad). “And you, kunoichi-san?”

“A-ano…” The woman hunched her shoulders and gripped the dangling end of her sash in both hands. “I am Katou Kyou. Chuunin. I… uh… that is…”

The Shiranui-guy smiled charmingly and put his hand on her shoulder to calm her down. “It’s okay, Kyou-san. Just take a deep breath.”

The girl stared up at him in surprise, and then her eyes filled with tears. “You’re so kind, Genma-san!” She let go of her belt, reached up to clasp his wrist in both hands, gaze trained on his face, and Naruto almost thought she would kiss him-

-only she threw him over her shoulder instead.

“The hell?” complained Shiranui-guy, landing smoothly on his feet some ten yards away.

Kakashi-taichou laughed at him. Then he turned to the kunoichi, surveyed her from the standard sandals to the slightly messy dark hair, pausing on her eyes – muddy brown – and the rest of her face – a little too wide to be ‘pretty’. “You haven’t seen her before either,” he mentioned, glancing briefly at Naruto to direct the question. “Was that a spur-of-the-moment thing?”

Naruto shrugged. “No idea. Sorry about this,” he said to Kyou-chan, and popped her with a shuriken.

“The hell?” repeated Shiranui-guy.

Naruto waited until the memories integrated, and then was a little amazed by his clones. They were a bunch of crafty guys with more than a little autonomous creativity. “She was based on Shizune-san, ‘cause I thought you probably wouldn’t know her. Didn’t have the time to make something from scratch.” She just made herself less pretty than Shizune-san.

“That was a shadow clone,” Nishi-san concluded. “But with a different shape? That wasn’t a Henge.”

Proof positive that Tsunade wouldn’t have been fooled if Naruto had tried a chakra-based disguise on her.

“Oiroke no Jutsu,” Naruto supplied. “Or, I’ve heard someone call it the Kage Henge. And maybe sorta class it as kinjutsu, but I think he was joking, ‘cause I invented it when I was at the Academy. Huh, did you know that if you keep a shadow clone alive for more than a week, it gets scary independent?”

“We do know now,” deadpanned Kakashi-taichou.

The other two guys just stared.

Naruto cringed. Had he hoped for a good start with his new team?

Hopes dashed.

Chapter Text

“Ideally,” mused Dog-taichou-sensei, “we’d get a couple of weeks of team-building milk-runs.” He looked around the mostly empty training field with the broken kusarigama, the two chuunin and the tokubetsu jounin, and shrugged. “But, I think we’re all capable professionals, so I picked up our mission statement. Pack for a month. Be ready to leave by the Western Gate at eight.”

He paused for dramatic effect, and then body-flickered away.

Naruto was torn between the urge to applaud (the dramatic timing was perfect) and roll his eyes (where Iruka-sensei found the patience to live with this guy, he had no idea, but at least it explained why he had so little left for the Academy students and none whatsoever at the Missions Desk).

“On the job training, huh?” grumbled senbon-proctor guy. He moved the senbon from one corner of his mouth to the other and then back. “Kakashi sure hasn’t changed.”

ANBU teammates, Naruto thought. Definitely ANBU teammates.

“I suddenly remember why I prefer my sedate job at the Hospital,” countered Nishi-sensei, outwardly amused but smelling like anger and anxiety. Yeah, if it was his first mission out of the village in a while, he probably wasn’t happy about being away for a month at a few hours’ notice.

Speaking of.

“You know him, right?” Naruto asked senbon guy, remembering how the Wave mission was supposed to take two weeks on the outside, but ended up about twice as long. Sure, a lot of unpredictable stuff had happened, but it always did, didn’t it? “If he says ‘a month’ does he actually mean two months? Three?”

Nishi-sensei went sort of pale.

Senbon guy shrugged. “Who even knows what goes on in that guy’s head? Don’t ask me, kid.”

Naruto nodded. He understood perfectly. It meant that he was on his own and senbon guy wouldn’t give him any special consideration for having less experience in the field. This team was different than a gennin team with a jounin sensei (who was supposed to teach them), but not that different (‘cause Kakashi had let them figure things out on their own a lot), and in any case senbon guy wasn’t here to teach Naruto stuff.

That was kinda nice, like they expected Naruto to pull his weight like he was their equal, and treated him that way. But also kinda intimidating. ‘cause Naruto loved being a chuunin, but even he had to admit that he really wasn’t at the level of people like Iruka-sensei or Nishi-sensei just yet.

But he’d get there. Quick enough. Believe it!

x

“You are basing your expectations of all jounin sensei off of Hatake Kakashi…?” Kurenai-sensei said incredulously. Then she dropped her face into her hands and groaned.

Sakura was completely bemused by what was happening. The weird feeling started when dog boy walked up to their jounin sensei and asked to have a sit-down talk with her, and grew as the five current active members of Team Eight (including Sakura) actually sat down on a log and tree stumps and talked. Openly. About their concerns.

This was like a different dimension. Kurenai-sensei wasn’t even being-

A condescending bitch! inner Sakura filled in with gusto.

Shut up! Sakura ordered herself and tried to suppress the rising blush. ‘Patronising’ was what she was going to say.

“I see,” said Kurenai. “Yes, this makes much more sense. I have to apologise to you, Sakura-chan.”

Sakura had no idea what – the hell! – was going on. She thought she recalled Kakashi-sensei apologising, but only ever sarcastically, or as a part of his oni-act to intimidate them into learning some obscure lesson. Faced with Kurenai’s seemingly genuine kindness, she found she missed the comfortable certainty that her sensei was a nasty, mocking troll.

This was like some of the basic brainwashing techniques she had read about. Give a little kindness where only cruelty can be expected – wasn’t that Conversion for Dummies?

On the other hand, had Kakashi-sensei really successfully trained her to regard kindness from other people as immediately suspicious?

Come to think of it, she was the only one of Team Seven that had to be trained. Sasuke-kun and Naruto had already been doing it before they became gennin.

“You’re scaring her again, sensei,” said dog boy.

Kurenai sighed. “Sakura-chan, after what happened with Asuma-sensei’s team, I was convinced that Kakashi had you assigned to me to mess with my team, as some sort of a convoluted revenge plot. We have had a… a difference of opinion recently, and I wouldn’t put it past him.”

Sakura had to admit that it was a fair assessment, except for one little detail. Kakashi-sensei might have been a-

Conniving bastard!

-but his most unforgivable trait was his tendency to be right in the end. And just looking at Kurenai now Sakura could tell that Kakashi-sensei had been right in their argument, too, and that Kurenai was still angry simply because Kakashi-sensei had effortlessly shown her up, absently humiliated her, and didn’t even have the grace to gloat about his victory, like it didn’t matter to him at all.

Whoa. Girl, you’re sure you’re in love with Sasuke-kun? Because right now you sound like you’ve got a huuumongous crush on-

Sakura felt her face going tomato-red.

Kurenai assumed that Sakura was reacting to the accusation, and swiftly moved toward her to put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I am so sorry. Now I know that Kakashi had you put on my team to mess with me, but you weren’t complicit. This isn’t your fault, Sakura-chan. He simply used you.”

Part of Sakura doubted this interpretation of events. Part was raging at being used like that. And part went: ‘Yeah, but that’s what a good commander does, isn’t it? Uses his subordinates as efficiently as possible.’

Kakashi and Sakura, sitting in a tree-!

Shut the fuck up! she mentally screeched at herself.

“Please,” said Kurenai, “don’t feel guilty. He does this to everybody.”

Sakura concentrated on taking deep breaths and letting them out slowly. She doubted this was the last time she had to deal with that particular mess of feelings, but she sort of shoved it all at her inner self to be rehashed later, so she could function right now.

“Feel angry all you want, though,” added the jounin, smiling wickedly. “We’ll find a way to channel that. How about I start you on some nasty little genjutsu today?”

“Yes, please, Kurenai-sensei.” Sakura wouldn’t let Kurenai use her in her own attempt on revenge against Kakashi-sensei, especially since she already knew that any such attempt would inevitably fail, but there was no harm in using this opportunity to learn.

Someone was willing to teach her. Without any ‘underneath the underneath’ bull.

She was in.

“Great!” exclaimed Kiba, jumping to his feet, echoed by Akamaru’s bark. “Let’s get this show on the road! We can’t get rusty, or Hinata will have our nutsacks!”

Shino fell apart into a buzzing cloud of insects.

Sakura was less grossed out by the things than she was angry at herself for not noticing she had been sitting next to a clone this whole time. She had to get better.

x

By lunch Iruka had such an itching case of cabin fever that he decided to personally drop by the Academy and deliver the few school reports he had managed to complete (between his two other jobs) instead of sending them with one of the gennin on duty.

He needed to stretch his legs more than he needed to eat. Kimimaro-san was calm, polite and intelligent, but he was also cold, ruthless and genuinely loyal to Orochimaru’s legacy in a way that made Iruka intensely uncomfortable. It was hard to see the hated (baby-killer!) enemy of Konoha through the eyes of someone who had admired and respected him. Loved him, even.

Basically, Iruka needed a breather. And he had a semi-valid reason to make a run to the Academy.

He had deposited his paperwork in Mitsuhara-sensei’s empty office (it was the middle of the class; everyone was hard at work) and was about to trudge back to the Hokage Tower, when the sound of a familiar voice made him pause in the corridor.

“It’s a technique I invented myself!” shouted Konohamaru. “The Oiroke Ja Nai no Jutsu!”

Iruka felt himself blanch. He was already dreading this, but before he forced his reluctant feet to move forward, Daikoku-sensei laughed and cheerfully exclaimed: “Let’s see this, Honourable Grandson!”

Iruka took cover. He knew Naruto; there was no shame in getting to a safe place if one of that hellion’s protégés was in a vengeful pranking mode.

Screaming commenced. Iruka had expected this, so he waited out the worst of it. Once it seemed like most of the victims had run out of breath he squinted – making sure that everything he saw was somewhat blurred – and glanced through the door into the classroom.

Konohamaru was, Iruka determined despite the deliberate fuzziness of his eyesight, wearing a Henge. Predictably, it was a Henge of a naked woman. Less predictably, said woman was Utatane Koharu-sama.

Iruka closed his eyes again, and muttered a prayer of thanks for his foresight. Looking at that directly might have scarred him for life. As it had, apparently, scarred a class of Academy students and Daikoku-sensei himself. Konohamaru was either a sociopathic genius (Iruka knew the boy well enough to laugh this hypothesis out of court), or had the most rotten luck (meaning that he himself had been subjected to a similar sight, which, owing to the life-long closeness of his Grandfather’s gennin team, was tragically a very real possibility).

Speaking of, going by the sound, Daikoku-sensei was lying on the floor and twitching. Someone should probably go and offer some help before the unsupervised class went wild.

Iruka very seriously considered taking this course of action, and then he decided that his duties unfortunately demanded him back at the Hokage Tower post haste.

Let someone else teach Konohamaru about how violating and just plain wrong it was to use someone’s intimate details like that. Like, for instance, the Grandfather whose carelessness had apparently resulted in this.

x

Sasuke had known that going to the market to buy food carried good chances of running into an Akimichi. He would have preferred it to be any Akimichi but this one, but when had anything ever gone according to his wishes?

“Hey, Sasuke-kun,” said Chouji, lumbering to the produce stand, weighed down by a huge basket of food. He loomed over Sasuke.

“Hn,” Sasuke replied, pretending to be checking the tomatoes for bruises, but mostly just watching from the corner of his eye in case Akimichi would take a swing at him. The rookie might have been big and relatively slow, but he was strong enough that he would have made a punch hurt.

“Got something for you,” said fatso, and offered a letter. Since it was violet and perfumed, there was no doubt about who it had come from. “She wanted to come apologise in person, but she knows you don’t want to see her-”

Good call. Sasuke didn’t want to ever see her again if it could be helped.

“-so she sent a letter. You don’t have to read it, or anything, but Shikamaru checked it and said there was nothing too worrying there. She’s really sorry for what happened. Went to the Hokage and spoke on your behalf – said she assaulted you first, and escalated unnecessarily-”

“Lied?” Sasuke interpreted. He put down the tomato and glared at the nosy proprietor who was conspicuously listening to the conversation.

“Not really.” The tub of lard cringed in secondhand embarrassment for his teammate, and decided to leave it at that. “Uhm. So, the food. Hope you enjoy it.”

He set the basket down at Sasuke’s feet.

“Hn,” said Sasuke, and the walking fat-battery must have taken it as acquiesce, because he walked away with a smile.

Sasuke lugged the thing to the Compound where he chucked it whole into the cesspit. Who even knew what the Akimichi had put into it? That had been a good job on the innocent and regretful routine, but if Sasuke had believed every sympathetic performance ever directed at him, he would be destitute, enslaved and, indeed, dead.

With the letter he was almost tempted – if just to see what Yamanaka had come up with (or, more likely, what Nara had come up with and dictated to her) – but in the end he held the envelope between his index and middle finger, and arranged the rest of his fingers into the Tora seal.

The violet paper was eaten by a little orange flame.

x

“What’s with the get-up, sensei?” asked Naruto, dropping down from a higher roof onto the roof in front of Iruka, who really should have expected it, except that his mind was in a different country (focusing on the details of the treaty to suppress the nightmare he had just escaped from).

“Uh… oh… Naruto…” Iruka put his shuriken back into the pouch with only a little awkward maneuvering and an aborted hiss of pain where his shoulder strap dug into one of the painful abrasions. “Ah, Tsunade-sama gave me an ultimatum for the negotiations with the Land of Rice Fields. It was either full ambassadorial robes or this. You can’t move very well in those robes and there is headgear involved, so… This chafes, but it’s not so bad.”

That was a lie.

Iruka might not have been bleeding right now, but after another day in the armour he would be.

“It’s not supposed to chafe!” Naruto admonished, leaning in closer to check on the buckles.

Iruka shoved him away – gently, but still.

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Eh, it’s basically rip-off ANBU armour with frills on. You’ve got someone that can help you put it on right-”

“I’ll ask my colleagues at the Academy whether they aren’t moonlighting in ANBU,” Iruka snarked. He wasn’t going to even touch on the topic of his private life with Naruto around. He was sure it would end with Naruto knowing nigh on everything, and Iruka enduring too much teasing for anyone’s good.

Naruto gave him a comically disappointed look (considering that Iruka was on his way to the Hokage Tower, where he spent most of his time, this was a valid response). “Just ask somebody, yeah? You’ll have welts this way, and spend your days in pain for absolutely no reason. Or is it that you’re embarrassed? If you want, I can ask Kakashi-taichou for you-”

“Let’s not even go there,” Iruka pressed out through clenched teeth. “This wasn’t what you wanted when you came looking for me.”

“I wanted to say goodbye before my mission,” Naruto said dismissively. “That was before I knew you were torturing yourself out of mistaken pride-!”

“I’ll ask, alright?!”

“Promise?”

“Promise,” Iruka replied in self-defence. “Now, about the mission-”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “You already know all the details anyway. Just wish me good luck and don’t forget to take care of yourself, yeah?”

Iruka closed his eyes and smiled into the sunlit afternoon. “Good luck, Naruto.”

x

Sasuke didn’t feel like cooking. Dinner was bread and cheese and tomatoes.

It stuck in his throat, and he forced it down the same way he forced himself to go through any of the odious duties he had to do as a shinobi. His body needed food, so food it would get.

Eating alone was normal for him, but today it felt terribly dreary. Naruto had sat here, at this table, so recently – the first person after so many years that it had been hard to not forget he was there at the time. Sasuke had had to keep reminding himself. And it had been… good. It had felt good. This was dangerous.

He forced down another small bite. His throat ached.

Naruto was his friend – an actual friend, not just a peer off-handedly affable by default – and they had a kind of a bond now. This was startling. Sasuke hadn’t wanted it. But they had mutual cooperation and a nascent respect, and it would be a lot harder to kill him than Sasuke had imagined.

I could do it, he told himself, taking a bite of a tomato so harshly that red juice sprayed around. It would hurt, but what in life didn’t hurt? As far as he knew the single worthwhile thing in life that did not hurt were tomatoes, and those were the exception that proved the rule.

Anyway, Naruto was leaving for a mission. Who knew how long it would last and when he’d come back and whether Sasuke would still be here in the village? Sasuke wasn’t convinced that the second Naruto was out of the Fire Country Sasuke’s problems wouldn’t mysteriously reappear.

This might have been Sasuke’s last chance to kill Naruto and achieve the next level of the Sharingan… only he couldn’t seem to make himself get up and go do it. What was the urgency? Why did it have to be now? It wasn’t as though Sasuke was otherwise ready to take on that man. He still had years of training ahead of him, but not many, not many-

His knife sank through the cheese and hit the plate hard enough to shatter it. Sasuke stared out of the window at the darkening Compound.

Could he actually kill Naruto? A few weeks ago he would have scoffed at the very question, but now he wasn’t sure about the answer anymore – he had thought Naruto didn’t deserve the promotion to chuunin, but that was because of his personality, not because of any lack of skill, and in the end it turned out that the personality was as genuine as Kakashi’s clownish façade!

But Sasuke… Sasuke had missed some memo somewhere, because he had been genuine all this time. His rage, his oath of revenge, his single-minded pursuit of his stated goals – all of it was genuine.

Oh. Oh. He had been so focused on being an avenger…

…that he completely forgot to be a shinobi.

x

Gentle hands guided Iruka’s in tightening the armor for the second time in a row. He thought he had it now. It only hurt anymore because of the preexisting welts.

He hated to admit it, but Naruto was right.

“I could leave a shadow clone behind to help you in the morning-”

“Along with half of your chakra?!” Iruka snapped, glaring over his shoulder.

Kakashi was smiling at him, so beatifically that Iruka tried to elbow his side in retaliation. Kakashi dodged, of course, and with a mocking little bow extended his hand with a jar of cream. “I’d offer to spread it on your injuries, too, except-”

“I can do it,” Iruka protested testily.

“You won’t get your back,” Kakashi pointed out.

He was right, of course. Iruka did not have the chakra reserves for a useful, stable shadow clone, and he didn’t want to ask someone else to rub cream into his back. And Kakashi would be gone.

He sighed. “Leave it to me. If it gets worse, I’ll ask Tsunade-sama.” Or her shadow clone – it was all the same to him. “Worry about the shinobi in your care.”

Kakashi’s silence carried the implication that of course Iruka was in his care, and Iruka was a shinobi, and that made him a shinobi in Kakashi’s care. They mutually acknowledged this point, and moved on from it, since Iruka was also a reasonably competent and independent adult person who had his own, separate, mission.

“I know…” Iruka’s breath hitched as Kakashi’s fingers came into contact with one of the more painful bruises. “I know Naruto is not a student anymore-”

“He’s a soldier. My soldier.”

“Yes,” Iruka pressed through clenched teeth, “and that’s what I’m afraid of. Just don’t forget that he’s a rookie – he might not be officially anybody’s student, but he needs guidance.”

Kakashi wiped off his hand on Iruka’s biceps and stepped away. “I can’t teach children. But training ANBU – I can do that.”

Iruka whirled around. “Your team is not ANBU! Naruto especially is not ANBU-”

“Eh, same difference.” Kakashi smiled, closing his eye. “We’ll be fine.”

“I know you will be,” Iruka replied, feeling like the wind was taken from his sails. He subsided and went to shrug on his yukata. The salve was already easing the aches of his body, but the tightness in his stomach wouldn’t go away.

x

“What’s with the face, sensei?” Kakashi inquired.

Iruka had been looking pale and worn, and there were the ever-present dark circles under his eyes. Sadly, it was a look Kakashi had become used to lately. That was one of the reasons why he had to get this mission over and done with. It was the last step to truly being free of the Hat.

After he returned, hopefully, he and Iruka could go back to their lives.

“You know I always miss you when you’re gone,” Iruka said with a sad attempt at a smile. “And we’ve barely had any time together since… oh kami-sama, since before the Chuunin Exams.”

“I’ll make it up to you when we come back.” Kakashi’s voice sank to lower registers, offering things he sadly couldn’t deliver at the moment.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, sempai,” Iruka said, referring to the bedroom voice. He pressed a quick, sad kiss to Kakashi’s mouth through the layer of the mask, and addressed the other subject. “Better a month now then the length of a war later. As long as you do come back. The both of you. Don’t leave me alone in this world, Hatake Kakashi.”

Kakashi left before the pressure became even worse.

Iruka was being odd. It had been a long time since either of them had sustained any grave injuries, and this mission was neither very long nor very dangerous. The histrionics weren’t warranted… except, of course, if Iruka had been thrown off balance by Kakashi’s temper tantrum about Jiraiya’s requisitioning of Naruto.

Circles within circles – underneath the underneath. People were so bloody complicated.

Kakashi stopped on the next roof… and then jumped right back.

Iruka was sitting on the kotatsu, already busying himself with sorting some Academy papers. He looked up when Kakashi’s shadow fell over him.

“You don’t forget things,” Iruka pointed out, invalidating the most obvious excuse before it was out of Kakashi’s mouth.

“Not equipment,” Kakashi admitted. “Other things, sometimes. It’s your job to remind me, kouhai.” He stepped down from the window ledge and pulled Iruka sharply against his chest. “I can either worry you or hide myself from you. You said this was my home-”

Our home,” Iruka snapped, though it came out muffled, because his face was pressed into Kakashi’s vest, “and I don’t want you to hide your concerns, just as you don’t want me to hide mine. Go, so I can properly worry about you, and then come back to laugh at me.”

This time when Kakashi left, the pressure in his chest wasn’t painful anymore, and he had a spring in his step. Finally, he was going to do something instead of sitting at a table and losing skill to stagnation.

It wasn’t even ten past eight when he joined the rest of his team at the Western Gate.

“You didn’t use to be late to anything above C-rank,” grumbled Genma, looking from his watch to the darkening sky overhead.

“He’s been late for his own death a few times,” opined Nishi-sensei.

“Maa,” Kakashi cut off what was shaping up to be a spirited team-bonding session with him as the shared practice target (there would be time for that later), “there was this hedgehog, and it looked so sad I just had to stop and pet it-”

“No details, please,” Naruto protested, grimacing.

It occurred to Kakashi that he should probably make his excuses a little less transparent now that his team didn’t consist of fresh gennin… on the other hand, who cared? Traumatising Naruto with the imaginings of the boy’s own perverted mind was just a pleasant bonus.

x

On the next morning, before he shut himself in with the Sound’s representative to hammer out further details of the treaty proposal, Iruka sought out Jiraiya-sama. The man was sitting in a meditation pose in Hokage-sama’s office (although Hokage-sama herself or any shadow clone of hers was nowhere in sight).

Iruka pressed his palms together and bowed. “I’m so sorry, Jiraiya-sama. I severely underestimated Sasuke-kun’s reaction to Team Ten. I have never intended for things to spiral out of control so badly.”

The old man opened one eye and grinned widely, wrinkles regrouping into an expression of mirth. “Good job, Umino.”

“Excuse me?!” Iruka snapped. “I might have doomed one of my students-”

“Not your student anymore.” Jiraiya flapped his hand dismissively. “Doomed? Bah! If anybody doomed that kid it was that idiot Fugaku. No, what you did was hand me the perfect cover story on a platter. Chin up, and welcome to actual espionage, grasshopper.”

Chapter Text

“Sasuke.”

“Iruka… sensei,” Sasuke added belatedly. Not out of a lack of respect, but simply because he could not figure out what to correctly call the man. He was a passable teacher for small children – who unexpectedly got drafted as Sharingan no Kakashi’s second in command during his stint as a Hokage.

Sasuke wasn’t sure what to think of Kakashi either. His opinion was almost uniformly negative, except that Sasuke wasn’t stupid, and he noticed that he was thinking exactly what Kakashi wanted him to think. That automatically invalidated Sasuke’s opinion, since it was clearly the result of manipulation. Trying to put together facts about Kakashi was akin to practicing water jutsu – slow, laborious, and invariably leading to disappointment.

So Sasuke didn’t know what to think of Kakashi, and he had even less to go on when it came to Iruka. ‘Sensei’ sounded like the safest honorific.

Iruka-sensei didn’t seem to be offended by the hesitation. That meant nothing. For a man who could be as expressive as the idiot-version of Naruto, Iruka-sensei could also appear to be the exact opposite of what he was.

Sasuke belatedly identified the strange tension in his abdominal muscles as fear. He was – shamefully – frightened of this innocuous man, a chuunin who claimed his sole ambition in life was teaching snot-nosed kids how to do a Henge.

“I have a mission assignment for you,” Iruka-sensei said with seriousness that equalled his speech during the last class before their graduation exam. “The mission rank is A.”

Sasuke felt his jaw drop. He was a gennin. The best he could hope for was B, and never a solo assignment. Unless…

Unless he was being requisitioned by the Seduction Corps.

He shuddered. He couldn’t stop the reaction, no matter how hard he tried. They… Could they? Weren’t Konoha’s Seduction Corps a voluntary assignment? He had always thought…

“Sasuke!” Iruka-sensei was exclaiming and leaping to his feet, while Sasuke turned around, sank onto his knees and emptied his stomach into the wastepaper basket. The shuddering worsened. Tears welled in his eyes.

The Council wanted his genes. It hadn’t worked with the fangirls. Sasuke shouldn’t have told Asuma. Now they knew it wouldn’t ever work, so they came up with something new. Fuck. He had thought he had solved this. He had thought he would walk away from this with another chance.

But, no, they only let him walk out of Psych so they could order him into someone’s bed.

No. He wouldn’t do this. He’d first go missing-

“Breathe, Sasuke-kun,” Iruka-sensei was saying and crouching next to Sasuke, not touching him –Sasuke thought he might have started breaking arms or casting Great Fireballs if the man tried to touch him – like he was experienced with panic attacks. Damn his black, cold heart. Teaching children, wiping noses, wiping arses, and assigning Sasuke straight into strangers’ sheets.

“Why?” Sasuke managed in between dry-heaves.

Iruka blinked at him, like he didn’t have a clue what Sasuke was talking about. “Well, contrary to popular opinion, I am aware that your assignment to Team Ten may have been somewhat… fraught…”

And they waited until Naruto was gone, so Sasuke would have no one to turn to for help.

“…but after you’ve done so well with the A-rank to Wave, I didn’t think a mission outside the village would seem so frightening.”

Sasuke clenched his fists. A part of him wanted to go back in time – back to when that man was the one security Sasuke had ever had, the one surety that someone was forever, always there for him, would keep him safe from any injustice or violence or violation.

“I’m not an idiot,” Sasuke hissed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I know what an A-rank solo assignment for a gennin means, sensei-” He was overwhelmed with emotion again (fear or anger or helplessness, whatever that stone in his stomach translated to) to say anything else.

It must have been enough, for Iruka-sensei paled nearly to the color of butter. “Sasuke… Sasuke, I swear this assignment is nothing like that. I shouldn’t have presented it to you like this…” The teacher took a deep breath, steadying himself. “You were requested for this because you’re an Uchiha. There are uses for the Sharingan that we do not advertise, and Kakashi-san is needed where he is presently. Konoha needs you, Uchiha Sasuke – will you deny it?”

That didn’t sound like the sort of assignment Sasuke had been thinking of. Iruka didn’t refute the assumption, though. Sasuke could reach Naruto with a messenger hawk – or, even better, send Asuka – so his mind was still working on the formulation of the letter he would send. Even though Naruto didn’t seem like the type that would get offended by a wrong choice of words, Sasuke couldn’t afford the risk-

“I realise it’s not the nicest thing to learn that you’re wanted for your eyes-”

“Better than being wanted for my…” Sasuke thought he was hardened enough to say it, but his voice failed him at the critical moment. How many witnesses were there to his complete and utter lack of decorum? Were they going to report it? And if not, was it going to become fodder for the rumour mill?

“Please, read the mission statement. I won’t pretend it’s pleasant, but it’s really nothing like you’re imagining.”

Sasuke reluctantly accepted the scroll that spelled out his doom and read it.

And… huh.

Alright, he had not expected this.

x

“Nii-san!” Hinata exclaimed excitedly when she looked up from her reading and found him standing in the doorway of her hospital room.

Writing letters back and forth had been reassuring, and Hinata was grateful for the opportunity to get to know Tenten-chan, but now that Neji-nii-san was here it felt like everything could start to mend. She extended her hand.

He flinched away, but a moment later shook off his hesitation and entered. He briefly paused to observe the flowers with the few kikaichu sentries, but Hinata knew that her team was busy with training right now, and not even Shino-kun would have the attention and chakra to spare on evicting an invited guest from Hinata’s room.

“I am…” Neji-nii-san spoke quietly, “…regretful of my actions toward you.”

Hinata smiled, even though he looked like speaking the words pained him. She was so very glad that he said them despite the pain – not so much because she wanted to hear them, but because it made her happy to know that he forgave her, and that they had a chance of a true understanding now.

“Thank you for coming, nii-san,” she replied. “Chocolate?” She offered the box she received as gift from Naruto-kun. Naruto-kun might have forbidden her from sharing it, but this was a special occasion. She knew – or, at least, hoped – that he would understand.

“No, thank you,” Neji-nii-san said with terribly uncharacteristic demureness.

Was this what he was like now? she wondered. It would take a little getting used to, but in the end the new Neji-nii-san reminded Hinata of herself more than of anyone else, and herself was somebody whom she could understand fairly well.

She stashed the chocolates away and patted the mattress. “Please, sit down and speak with me. What have I missed?” A lot must have happened within the Clan, which Kiba-kun and Shino-kun wouldn’t know, and Father would not mention.

Neji-nii-san did as she requested, although he sat stiffly and spoke stiltedly. “There has been pressure on Hiashi-sama to select Hanabi-sama as the heir, but so far Hiashi-sama refused to make any irreversible decision.”

Hinata nodded. Confirming Hanabi-chan as heir would sentence Hinata to the Caged Bird Seal, and there was no way of taking that back. She was – relieved.

“Following our duel there was also pressure for a betrothal between Hanabi-sama and myself, although as we are biologically half-siblings, Hiashi-sama squashed the idea.”

Hinata reached out, ignored Neji-nii-san’s flinch and put her hand on his elbow. This was relief they could share. She knew that Neji-nii-san would have taken the most diligent care of Hanabi-chan, just as she knew that neither of them could ever have been happy in such a match.

“Then…” He paused and looked down at Hinata’s hand. “Then there was the final stage of the Chuunin Exams, where I was… defeated… by Uzumaki-san.”

Hinata couldn’t deny that she had been waiting for this moment. She wanted to hear about it – but it was unfair to ask for the witness account from her nii-san, for whom the defeat must have been truly shattering, since it resulted in a drastic change of personality. Or, perhaps not so much personality as outlook.

In any case, Neji-nii-san had changed, and the process had not been painless.

“Do you wish to hear about it?” he asked.

Hinata, loathe to lie to him, hung her head in shame and nodded.

“Very well.” He closed his eyes and recounted the fight.

…Neji had not altered his training regimen in deference to the Chuunin Exams. He had been repeatedly assured that his taijutsu exceeded even the most stringent expectations of chuunin rank, and his opposition was pathetic. In fact, there was no opposition at all. The whole spectacle was the exhibition of Neji’s skill for his jailers to envy and hate him for.

“Begin!” bade the Proctor.

Neji loosened his posture, ready to slip into a Juuken stance the instant the caricature of a shinobi standing opposite him attacked. He would take the fight seriously if necessary, of course. He had no qualms about maiming another worthless excuse of a ninja.

“Give up,” he demanded. “You have no chance of winning. Your fate is to-”

Taijuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!”

The arena was suddenly flooded with orange and blue. Neji activated the Byakugan (every orange-and-blue body suddenly became a brightly shining chakra construct, almost painful to view) and began to systematically dispel the clones. “Substantial ones?” he spoke out loud. “Ambitious. But even monstrosity won’t save you from defeat. It is fated. All that you do here is futile. Accept that you will never-”

Wire snapped; tags fluttered through the air; a balloon full of paint exploded in front of Neji’s face.

His eyes burnt; he moulded chakra for a Replacement, but then his ankles clacked together; he fell backwards, hitting his head on the roughly packed dirt and getting stunned by a couple of the tags in close succession.

This… this was not supposed to happen.

He blinked, and blinked, and blinked and blinked and blinked, but the paint was still in his eyes, still burning and interfering with his sight just as badly as the army of chakra constructs was before. His opponent stood above him, and for the first time Neji realised that he could not see him clearly.

Blah, blah,” said the loser. “Fate? It’s an excuse. Like saying that you didn’t do that to Hinata. That it was going to happen anyway, and you were just the tool in the hands of some higher power. Can’t even take responsibility for your own actions, huh? Pathetic.”

Neji choked. He felt the first stirrings of rage such as he hadn’t allowed himself to feel in years. Living inside a cage meant unceasing rage, but he had painstakingly learnt to control it… No. Mask it. He had learnt to mask it, and the mask had just been cracked by this… this clown.

“What happened to taking charge of your own circumstances?” asked the cretin, squatting by Neji’s side, completely unafraid that Neji would manage to free himself of the wire and snap his neck. “You’re compromising your own goals with how you act toward other people, have you noticed? Like Sasuke. D’you know Sasuke?”

The wire cut deep, through Neji’s skin, into his muscle, but he wasn’t giving up. This was ridiculous. He shook his head at the Proctor.

“Sure you do,” the Uzumaki moron continued prattling. “Everybody knows Sasuke. And everybody knows his self-defeating obsession. Why d’you think nobody’s willing to teach him stuff? He goes ‘round hating everything and everybody and announcing that nothing – including Konoha and his team – matters to him. Why’d anybody want to teach a person like that?”

Uzumaki poked Neji’s shoulder. Neji snapped his teeth at him.

“So, like, why’d anybody want to teach a person like you? You’re so strong that a bunch of people musta been interested, I’m sure… But d’you think anyone will want to work with you if you insult them? Or if you threaten to use your skills against them?”

They were jealous! The entire Clan was full of people who obediently bowed their backs to be trodden on by Hiashi-sama’s immediate family, because they would rather hate silently and inefficiently than get up and do something to help themselves! And if not help themselves, then at least get back at their Masters.

Neji was the only one who managed something more. And now they all resented him for being better than them. They could choke on it. They could all choke.

Uzumaki rocked on his toes. “This thing you do – you and Sasuke both – when you act like your suffering is somehow admirable… it’s not. The admirable things about you could be stuff like strength and perseverance and… I dunno…” He gestured widely with his hands. “…like when you figured out your clan techniques all by yourself, that is awesome. People said so! I heard them! They noticed!” He sighed and gave Neji an absurdly chastising look. “But they also noticed that you put Hinata into the Hospital even though you were so much stronger than her that you absolutely didn’t have to even really hurt her to win.”

Neji did not have to, that was true. But he could. He could – and it had felt good.

“And why? ‘cause she’s nice?”

“She is weak!” Neji spat bloody saliva from where he had bitten the inside of his cheek in his vain struggle against the wire.

Uzumaki stood up; his shadow fell over Neji’s face. “And now, so are you. Weak. Helpless.” He transformed into a perfect likeness of Neji. “Ne, Hyuuga Neji. Look, here’s a weak person. Whatcha gonna do about it?”

And Neji, looking into his own expressionless face, knew what was going to happen to him. He closed his paint-filled eyes even before the blow rendered him unconscious.

…Hinata found herself biting the inside of her cheek, too, as Neji-nii-san finished his retelling. She wished she could alleviate some of that pain – but she had wished so for years, and nothing had ever helped. Nothing, not even Neji-nii-san beating her within an inch of death.

“He did not hurt me to win,” Neji-nii-san added quietly. “It took me some time to come to terms with what that implied.”

From his story, Hinata understood which implication he meant – that Naruto-kun was so much stronger, or at least so much smarter than Neji-nii-san. She did not think that was necessarily true. Just… Naruto-kun had more freedom to grow, to stretch his mind in directions that were closed off to the children of the Hyuuga Clan, whether they were caged by duty or by a seal.

“Naruto-kun is…” Hinata spoke tentatively, and then paused. She had run out of words. At least, she had run out of words that were not far too embarrassing to say out loud.

But Neji-nii-san nodded in agreement anyway.

x

“Are you injured, Umino?” asked Tsunade-sama’s clone when Iruka winced sitting down.

“N-no, Hokage-sama-”

“You should have practiced that lie some more,” remarked the clone and moved closer. Tsunade-sama’s nose wrinkled. “At least you’re taking care of it. Well, if you won’t tell, do show.”

Iruka stared at her.

“Embarrassed about a sex injury? I don’t judge. Much.”

Iruka barely managed to stave off the vasodilation in his face. “No, Hokage-sama.”

She put one hand on her hip and gestured at him with the other. “I’m waiting, Umino. Off with that. Or I’ll dispel and-”

“No need for threats, Hokage-sama…” Iruka grumbled and obediently started pulling off his armor. A surreptitious check of the clock confirmed that Kimimaro-san was not expected for another hour yet; Hokage-sama and Iruka were supposed to use this time to go over his progress and troubleshoot. Apparently, troubleshooting now included an impromptu medical exam of Iruka.

He pulled his mesh shirt over his head – but really only because the woman frightened him.

“This is a bad joke,” she muttered at his back. “What are you using for it?”

Iruka pulled the jar out of his pouch and handed it over.

“I should have ordered you into the ceremonial robes. But now you’ll just look like an idiot who can’t wear armor properly if you switch.” There was some more mumbling, but it must have been in a different language, because even Iruka’s ears couldn’t parse it.

Cold hands touched him; there was some pushing and pulling, and a brief use of healing chakra on the worst two spots, and then Iruka found himself subjected to the worst horror: Tsunade-sama was putting the salve on his back. This was… this was a new low. Iruka wished the floor would open and swallow him.

“Tanuki will show you how to put it back on correctly-”

“No need, Hokage-sama,” Iruka replied. The contrary floor still wasn’t swallowing him. “I’ve already had someone show me. I apologise for the inconvenience.”

“You’re ten years too old to be this ingenuous, Umino,” she muttered at the back of Iruka’s head. “Don’t let it happen again.”

“I won’t, Hokage-sama.” He wouldn’t. Naruto was right; he had been stupid, and this encounter just compounded it for him. Never again.

The shadow clone harrumphed. “And, Tanuki – if I hear a whisper of this on the grapevine, the next mask you’ll wear will be the wiring holding the shards of your jaw together.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama,” replied the shadow in the corner of the room.

Iruka had known that the man was there because he had heard him breathe, so he wasn’t startled; he was simply further mortified (and wholeheartedly grateful to Godaime-sama for issuing the threat to protect his reputation).

“Wipe that look off your face,” Tsunade-sama snapped at him. “I just like the rumours that you used to be an ANBU.”

Iruka’s head whipped around to stare at her. “What rumours…?”

She smirked. “Haven’t you heard? Urban legend says you were the youngest ANBU ever recruited!”

Iruka clenched his jaw very tight. This had a very familiar feel.

Naruto wasn’t likely to repeat a prank he had regretted (his reaction when he found out that he might have put Iruka into real danger by claiming that he was a Hokage candidate pretty much guaranteed that), but that wouldn’t have stopped Konohamaru and his retinue.

Iruka sighed and closed his eyes in defeat.

His own mesh shirt hit him in the face.

“Put your clothes on, Umino – I appreciate a show, but we’ve got work to do here.”

x

Kakashi-taichou’s approach to team-building was predictable.

He mocked every team member in front of his comrades individually, then pissed them off as a group, and then gave them a thought problem to solve while scouting the road ahead.

They were still in Fire territory, but even Naruto admitted that the best time to attack a Fire team would be in Fire territory, because they weren’t expecting it there. So they expected it. Underneath the underneath again. That’s why Juuji and Annai were running guard on the side of the road that wasn’t guarded by a river.

“He really likes it when his team hates him, huh?” mused Naruto.

“I thought that was just how he was naturally,” opined Nishi-sensei who, Naruto had recently found out, was still living with his mother after a string of failed relationships that led him to the firm decision to focus on his career instead of trying to start a family.

“Both,” assured them senbon guy. “He likes miles and miles of emotional distance in a team. This way it won’t bother him so much if we all die.”

“How likely is that?” asked Nishi-sensei, looking perturbed.

Cool word, perturbed. It described exactly the face Nishi-sensei was making. Also, unperturbed described senbon guy’s face pretty good.

“On this mission, not very,” said senbon guy. He looked sideways at Naruto; his eyes narrowed. “I’d say the chances were low, bordering on negligible. Unless we run into a bunch of S-class nin.”

“And how likely is that?” inquired Nishi-sensei, moving from perturbation to sarcasm.

“In the Land of Rivers? Nah. If we went to, hmm, Grass… maybe.”

Naruto remembered watching the fight against Orochimaru from an almost safe distance. He didn’t think he was ready to go up against an S-class nin yet, and the way Nishi-sensei paled a little suggested that they agreed on this point.

“Eh,” grumbled senbon guy, eyes moving over the forest to their right, “don’t start panicking now. Kakashi wouldn’t have taken you on this mission if he didn’t think you had the necessary skill and experience for it.”

Skill? Naruto might have been promoted to chuunin, but he was only on Kakashi’s team because Kakashi had pissed off Iruka-sensei by giving Naruto Iruka-sensei’s kid picture. This was retribution. It wasn’t like Dog-sensei wanted him here. And experience?

“I’ve only done three A-ranks so far-”

“How long have you been a chuunin?” Nishi-sensei cut in.

Naruto’s face screwed up as he counted. “Three weeks now.” Huh. It seemed like so much longer. Those were real busy three weeks.

“Ah,” said Nishi-sensei with an iryounin-typical smile. Lots of the medics wore that smile, especially around wounded ninja. “I see.”

Naruto didn’t see. He would have thought that sharing this information about one another was part of the deal – as new teammates they were supposed to be getting to know one another, weren’t they? Or was this just history repeating itself, and Naruto once again accepted only because they had been ordered to accept him? Was that why senbon guy wouldn’t look at him except for those little out-of-the-corner-of-his-eye glances, like he was checking if Naruto wasn’t about to try and bite somebody innocent?

Was that why Nishi-sensei ran inside a cloud of anxiousness?

Naruto let himself fall behind the two of them. He kept his eyes on the road and on the river, trusting his dog-siblings to alert him if anything was coming from the right.

After a while senbon guy spoke to Nishi-sensei: “Out of curiosity, same stats for you?”

“Nineteen years,” said the medic dryly. “Zero.”

Senbon guy snorted. “Didn’t let you out of the Hospital?”

“Apparently, I am handy with a scalpel.”

Naruto heard the threat in that sentence loud and clear. Senbon guy was not stupid enough to continue teasing Nishi-sensei about his lack of field experience now that he knew it might have resulted in unasked-for field surgery.

Nishi-sensei continued worrying so much that he was making Naruto nervous, too.

Naruto himself just ran on as instructed, hopes for this new team sinking lower. He could already see that it would take him months and months to get these older, more experienced people to even take him seriously, and that the meantime would be a little more civil, but not actually any friendlier than the start of Team Seven.

x

Kimimaro-san took his leave with a bow far shallower than Iruka’s – not intended as any sort of slight, simply due to his medical condition – and Iruka moved back to the desk to arrange the papers and write down a few notes he hadn’t wanted to make in front of the Sound ninja.

Just as he finished a summary of today’s relevant points, the door behind him opened again; he heard Hokage-sama’s Kage Bunshin enter and approach.

“You’ve worn Kaguya out,” she remarked.

Iruka stood and presented his report. “I am trying to be understanding of his frail health while not being swayed by disproportionate sympathy; but if I must err, it shall be on the side that benefits Konoha.”

The clone grinned for an instant, before the expression was muted to a smirk. “Sit.”

Iruka frowned. He had plans for this evening. Plans that did not involve getting a head start on tomorrow’s work-

“You’re not going back to the Academy yet, Umino.”

He didn’t even ask how she knew about his intention to drop by the Academy and do some real, honest work for a few hours. Even if it was just marking. He needed to lift his spirits, and what better way than to remind himself of why he was sloughing through this diplomatic mire? It was all for the children.

“But-”

“I know you can do twice the work of anybody else,” Hokage-sama interrupted him, “but I need you well-rested for this. We might be coming into this negotiation from a position of power, but that doesn’t give us room for mistakes. Orochimaru wouldn’t have made an idiot his second in command.”

“I… I wouldn’t neglect my duties-”

“You nearly drove yourself to the brink of exhaustion for a month doing the work of half a dozen people. Don’t tell me you’re back at hundred percent a week later – I’ve got eyes. Rest, so I don’t have to worry about your mind being clouded with exhaustion.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama,” Iruka said mechanically.

“You learn that hangdog expression from Hatake’s ninken?”

“No, Hokage-sama.” He might have gritted his teeth a little too audibly this time.

“Don’t pout at me. Any further problems with your armour?”

“No Hokage-sama.” Now she was just making fun of him. “If that’s all, I’d like to go over these proposed export taxes-”

“That’s what tomorrow is for. You’re going home, taking a hot bath, brewing a pot of tea and sitting down with one of those brainless books Hatake always totes about. Medic’s orders.”

Iruka rather thought that the clone could put its supposed ‘medic’s orders’ up somewhere unmentionable, but Tsunade-sama was still his Hokage and… there were worse orders than to relax for one evening.

x

It was fairly usual for a date between two shinobi to turn into a spar – what easier way to transition from socialising to bed, right?

Kurenai and Asuma were a little past that stage, so they typically skipped the sparring and went to Kurenai’s apartment. Asuma lived in the Sarutobi Clan House, which was beautiful and had all sorts of amenities, but private it was not. After one late morning encounter with the Sandaime on her trip from the bathroom to Asuma’s bedroom, Kurenai declared that it was her place or nothing.

While they had a lot of experience with sparring, tonight was the first time their date had turned into a plotting session.

It was almost romantic, under the dim red light of the stylised lantern over their table, with the ikebana (promising in hanakotoba passionate devotion under the shadow of death) serving as table decoration.

Kurenai had shared her success with Sakura-chan.

Asuma had shared the as-of-yet unofficial info that the last Uchiha was being transferred off his team.

They had both breathed a sigh of relief over their second glasses of cocktail, and then retreated into the most shadowed corner of their box. Kurenai preferred this ‘romantic’ establishment for the simple reason that most of their social circle did not, and thus they were unlikely to meet anyone they knew. For instance, the only way Anko would be caught here was with an armful of primed explosive tags.

“I’m going to make him regret he ever thought of this plot,” Kurenai stated once her glass was empty.

Asuma choked on his last sip. “I love you, but I think you might be overestimating yourself. Or underestimating him.”

She looked around and pegged the two actual kunoichi among the customers (aside from herself). One was on duty; the other was simply having fun toying with the woman (civilian, married) seated opposite her. She tried to make a similar analysis of the men, but that had always come harder to her. Was she prone to underestimating male shinobi? Perhaps, but if so then only because she had to offset the default overestimation propagated by their entire society.

She wasn’t going to accept another jounin as her superior simply because his genitals hung out.

“You just continue being a chicken, Asuma.” She signalled for the cheque. “I’m going to be the best sensei Sakura-chan has ever had, and send her out into the world with a few tricks up her sleeves that will give even Kakashi a pause.”

Asuma didn’t bother to hide his skepticism (on one hand it made her happy, because it meant that he wasn’t putting on a show for her anymore; on the other hand, wasn’t he supposed to be on her side?). “You’ve got how long to pull this off again?”

“I have Sakura-chan for a month, officially,” she said, even though she knew that he knew this, and was only dragging it out of her due to the mistaken impression that she had not taken the time constraint into account. “But for this cause I am perfectly happy to continue privately tutoring her even after she is no longer a member of my team.”

Asuma didn’t say anything. He paid the waitress that came with their cheque – it was his turn tonight, since Kurenai had paid last time.

“You’re just going to let it go?” she demanded as they moved out into the night street. “Hatake Kakashi messed with your team, but it’s okay, because getting back at him would be too much work?”

Asuma finished lighting his cigarette. He blew out a ring of smoke in a motion eerily reminiscent of his Father, and then shook his head: “…I’m not sure it was Kakashi, actually.”

“Who else?”

He shrugged, taking another drag. “The man nobody suspects. Ever.” He exhaled a shapeless cloud of smoke and pensively repeated: “Nobody ever suspects him.”

 “Who?” Kurenai demanded.

Knowing he was annoying her – and happy about it – he simply grinned. “I’m going to ask him.”

And that was it.

Kurenai decided that, of course, he was entitled to playing his games with her and keeping things that affected her team secret. He was. That was his prerogative.

But Kurenai was perfectly entitled to slamming her door in his face and going to bed alone.

x

They reached the borderlands just as dawn broke over the horizon – a very different horizon than Naruto was used to.

They stopped for breakfast; Kakashi-taichou told them they had ten minutes before they were on the way again. Not time enough to brew tea or even boil water for instant ramen. Just barely enough to force down a ration bar and re-fill their water bags.

Naruto fed Juuji and Annai and then plopped down between them on the ground, chewing the hard, bittersweet stuff.

This wasn’t anything like Tsunade-retrieval. It wasn’t anything like discovering a missing nin in the village (that only originally counted as a B-rank, until the T&I people found that there was a whole invasion planned and Iruka got spitting mad for how narrowly Konoha had averted a disaster and made it an A-rank mostly so he could yell at the ANBU that a gennin had to do their jobs for them).

The closest he had ever come before to this kind of mission was in Wave.

He stared upwards at the tall, bald peaks of the towering mountains, and felt very tiny and weak.

Wave… He had been so sure that he was ready to be a shinobi, that he could take whatever the world would throw at him. And he had run headfirst into – into an epiphany. Haku-san, he thought. No, that didn’t feel right. Haku. They had been too close for honorifics. They had touched each other’s heart – Naruto was sure of that. Touched, so clumsily that both their hearts broke in the aftermath, only Haku’s did so literally, too, rent apart by Dog’s Chidori.

Ya-san had spoken to him later, at length, agreeing with Naruto’s decision to not lean on Rikku in his grief. Ya-san taught him the word ‘epiphany’ too – it was a great word for what Haku had come to mean to Naruto.

“You’re going to do fine,” Nishi-sensei assured him.

Naruto nodded at him, smiling a mute thanks for the support. He didn’t doubt that they would succeed at their assignment, and this time it wasn’t the naïve self-assurance of a child, but a true confidence in the strength of his team.

Just like Team Seven: even though they didn’t like him, when the time came, they would fight by his side.

x

“What do you mean, gone?!”

Tsunade knew that Asuma wasn’t the shouting type, so this exclamation went a long way in convincing her that he was truly clueless.

Nara stared out of the window at the damn clouds, like they weren’t having an emergency here. He absently twirled a kunai in his fingers; in the handful of days Tsunade had interacted with him she had seen him twirl all sorts of things, starting with chopsticks and ending with, interestingly enough, a leek. Where the hell had he gotten that?

“I mean,” Tsunade said, seriously contemplating just throwing the Hat at the nearest person and running as fast and as far as her feet could carry her (which was very fast and very far), “that I’ve got a dead ANBU, and sealed-off Compound inside the village that not even our best fuuinjutsu users can access, and a ticking time bomb of a gennin with a practically extinct fucking doujutsu disappeared into the night!”

She was shouting, too. She felt it was warranted.

What the fuck kind of a leaking barge did Hiruzen-sensei leave for her?

“Wait,” someone said in the hallway outside her office, “Uchiha Sasuke? You mean he’s gone missing?”

“I’m not even surprised,” replied another voice. “After that-”

And then they were gone out of earshot – on their merry way to spread this information to the whole damn village. Within an hour everybody who was at all connected (and that was pretty much everybody, because they were goddamn ninja) would have heard.

Uchiha Sasuke? The last loyal Uchiha? Ha! So last week.

“Sarutobi,” Tsunade said at a somewhat more manageable volume (the steady intake of sake helped with maintaining equanimity), “Hatake’s not here for me to beat into a bloody pulp. You better find me the person responsible for this shitshow, or I’ll happily use you as the substitute.”

As far as she knew, Uchiha had attended two team training sessions with Sarutobi – for a given value of ‘attended’. The first one had blown up within minutes. He had been picked up from the second one by ANBU, and transported directly to a psychiatric facility.

Apparently, this wasn’t enough of a warning to do anything but put an ANBU guard on the boy because no way would that stress him further – maybe enough that he would do something stupid.

Fuck. If it was her, she would have been gone into the night so fast. So fast. Good on the boy, thought Senju Tsunade.

“Get him back. Unharmed!” ordered the Godaime Hokage, who was, as far as she was concerned, a completely different person. And, because Shimura was already turning to her and opening his mouth with what would be a very smooth and uncompromising plan, she added: “Nara, take care of this. No Hunters, no ANBU. And I want a full investigation of the dead one-”

“Shouldn’t we be focusing on the murderer instead of the victim?” suggested Utatane.

Tsunade glared at her. “A gennin murdered an ANBU, huh? It must not have been a competent ANBU then? Or was it that your precious prodigious Uchiha is already so advanced-”

“Excuse me?” the old bat hissed stiffly.

“Excuse denied,” Tsunade snapped, out of patience with their bullshit. “That boy is a gennin, and if somebody murdered the ANBU that was supposed to guard him-” She wanted to see who gave that order, and make them eat the scroll it was written on! “-we’re looking at a possible abduction. I find it unfunny that you sing the boy’s praises with one breath and with another assume that he’s betrayed Konoha. Make up your mind!”

“If I may-”

“Not now, Shimura! Gennin are out of your purview. Speaking of, get me your wife, Nara; I want her on this one. Tell her she can pick her team. One rule: no facial masks.” Nara Yoshino, Tsunade was given to understand, did things her way, and kami help whoever dared disagree.

She was exactly what Uchiha needed (aside from a long trip away from the village so he could learn how to breathe, but, alas, not with those eyes). She was also the perfect deterrent to Shimura’s incessant need to put his Root puppets into every operation (why Hiruzen-sensei hadn’t had the man discreetly put to sleep ages ago she’d never understand).

“Ah, Hokage-sama?” asked Sarutobi, and damn if he wasn’t squashing a grin.

Tsunade gave him three seconds to explain himself before he would have to do it from a hole in the wall she made with his head.

“I have a name for you,” he said with disturbing eagerness. “It’s Umino Iruka.”

Chapter Text

The door flew open, crashed into the wall, and an enraged female voice bellowed: “Umino!”

Iruka turned from Hokage-sama’s calm and amused shadow clone to Hokage-sama’s wrathful true self. And back.

His bemusement must have been communicated clearly enough, because the shadow clone made a hand-sign (unfamiliar to Iruka), and suddenly the amount of killing intent in the conference room halved.

“I must be overusing that jutsu,” Tsunade-sama hissed, glaring at her clone, which glared back at her with the air of one making a concession, “because I could swear I’m not integrating all the memories anymore.”

Iruka blinked and stood up from the chair in concern. He knew from Naruto that up from a certain number of Kage Bunshin the memories became hazier and disjointed, until finally they would not come to the ninja at all. He had not expected Tsunade-sama to have the chakra reserves for such a large number of clones, but perhaps the memory corruption started at a lower level for those with less chakra.

In any case, the amount of work she had to be doing to get to such a state was worrying. “Please be careful with your health,” he said, offering his chair.

Hokage-sama scoffed at him and waved her hand, clearly indicating that Iruka’s concern was unnecessary and unwelcome.

She took Kimimaro-san’s vacant seat instead, rested her elbows on the desk and laced her fingers so she could set her chin on top of them. She pinned Iruka with an ice-cold, gimlet stare. “Uchiha Sasuke. Start talking, Umino.”

x

Sasuke arrived within sight of Fujino-Cho and set up a makeshift camp. He had no idea how long it would take before his mission commander arrived.

Since he had received no useful information whatsoever from Iruka-sensei, there was no point to fretting about the parameters of his mission. He did not like it, that was a given – but it was looking increasingly likely that this mission had nothing whatsoever to do with his genes. And propagation thereof.

He was glad no one saw his relief at this turn of events (even camping in mud for a year was better than an involuntary night in somebody’s bed).

Asuka, naturally, was of the opposite opinion. “More isolation,” she muttered dryly, “exactly what you need, egg-yolk. But at least somebody’s finally giving you something useful to do.”

Useful to them, perhaps. Useful to Sasuke? Che, right. “This just continues the trend of sabotaging my training. I’m surprised they even let me walk out of the village.”

“They did more than that. We still don’t know who killed the guard, but I don’t suppose anyone would consider you innocent until proven guilty.”

So, Sasuke noted, watching the few travelers trickling along the road to the town, laden with bags or dragging carts, this was the life of a missing nin. It didn’t seem so difficult. At least until the time came for him to find paying work.

Should he even wait for his contact and scope out the mission before he cut ties completely?

“Take first watch,” he snapped. The warm sunlight made his eyes itch and close.

“I liked Mizuki better,” Asuka snapped back, but at least this time she didn’t attack him with her bill.

“Mizuki was a traitor,” Sasuke pointed out.

“Because what you’re intending isn’t treason?”

“Maybe nobody will come,” Sasuke muttered. He closed his eyes and decided to wait until noon before moving on. He might try and meet with Naruto, but then again, he might not. Naruto had more reasons than most to hate Konoha, but he seemed to form ties to Konoha’s people that would prevent him from ever truly leaving.

x

Sakura was… numb.

She wished she could be angry, or heartbroken, or anything at all, but there was nothing inside her when she thought of Sasuke-kun. She suspected the inner Sakura had soaked it all up; it must have been all bad, and explosive, and absolutely socially unacceptable, so of course it went to Inner.

Sakura missed it now.

But, with that problem shelved rather than solved (oh, it would come back one day, likely as not in the form of a bloody murder, hopefully not Sasuke-kun’s) she focused on the next terrible roadblock on her own road of life. And, for goodness’ sake, had she just used that wording?

You could try not lying to yourself for a change, suggested Inner.

You could try shutting up for a change, she thought at herself, approaching the unexpectedly intimidating door of the florist’s. She hadn’t come here… in more than a year. Her friendship with Ino was all messed up – were they even friends at all anymore?

She hoped.

She stepped under the arch and walked into the shop. Ino was leaning against the counter, reading a scroll. As she noticed the incomer, she put her reading down and stood up with a shallow customer-service smile plastered on her face, opened her mouth to call out a greeting-

And spotted Sakura.

The smile slipped away.

Sakura took a deep breath. “Ino…”

“Hi, Sakura,” said her friend, and she must have still been her friend, or she wouldn’t have spoken with such unguarded sympathy.

Sakura wanted to throw herself at Ino and demand a hug, but her feet seemed grown into the floor in between the tubs of multicoloured freesias and indigo irises, and all she managed to say was: “Uh…”

Ino rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know, I’m supposed to insult you here and laugh as you beg me for help with whatever it is you need help with… can we skip it today?”

Sakura slumped in relief. Her fringe fell over her eyes like a curtain and hid the curious gaze she directed at her friend. “I’m not the only one, huh?”

Ino, too, looked like she had been crying. And possibly like she had been sick lately, except that Sakura liked to believe she would have known if anything serious had happened to Ino. If for no other reason than because, up until his disappearance, Ino had been Sasuke-kun’s teammate.

Sakura let herself be pulled over and pushed down to sit on a bench.

“I didn’t expect this,” Ino said after a while of uncomfortable silence between them. “I thought that if you came at all, it would be with accusations. How I… how I drove him away-”

“What?!” Sakura screeched. She was free to screech now, after all. Sasuke-kun’s threat was obsolete.

The way Ino flinched, though…

Yeah, maybe we should try to stop for good, regardless of Sasuke-kun.

“Sorry,” Sakura forced out. She took a deep breath and braced herself. “Ino, I… Before, at the Academy, I never thought about Sasuke-kun’s feelings. None of us did. We only ever thought about our own feelings. And of course I was excited to be on a team with him, but he never seemed happy. I guess I didn’t understand until I saw him when Kakashi-sensei told him he was reassigned to your team.”

That had been difficult to say. But now that it was out, Sakura felt a little lighter.

Ino glared at her. “Was he angry?”

And this, this was the bitterest part. Sakura shook her head. “No, he wasn’t angry.” She swallowed. She didn’t realise it at that time, but in hindsight it was obvious. “He was scared.”

Ino was not surprised. She must have already suspected as much. Huh. She had always been smarter about people than Sakura. Sakura was the book-smart one.

“But,” Sakura soldiered on, “that isn’t on you. We were stupid, yes, but it wasn’t me who drove Sasuke-kun away, and it wasn’t you either. Just… think back, think on everything that happened to him in Konoha… that was allowed to happen to him in Konoha…”

Ino’s eyes widened. She nodded. And then nodded again as the pieces began to fit together. “When did you figure this out?”

Sakura shrugged. She would have loved to leave it at that, but she had hopes for re-connecting with Ino, and didn’t want to start out with a lie. “Naruto clued me in.”

“The idiot?” This time Ino was surprised.

Sakura groaned and pressed her forehead to her knees. “I have no idea! He just… knows things. Does things. Looks totally stupid most of the time, but he tricked Tsunade-sama! They promoted him to chuunin! I don’t knooow….”

“Huh.” Ino took the spot next to her on the bench and bumped their shoulders together. “I feel like we should sit him down with Shikamaru, give them a common objective, and watch how many people in the vicinity lose their will to live.”

Sakura lifted her head and tried to smile. “Ne…”

“Oh,” Ino remembered, “you wanted help with something. Is this an ice cream and tissues discussion, or can we go get some of that fudge from that one vendor…?”

Sakura actually had no idea. “Have you ever had a crush on someone totally inappropriate? Like, you actually really dislike that person, but you still blush and your stomach goes all fluttery and you want to stab yourself in the eye with a kunai every time you think about them?”

Hilarity flashed through Ino’s face before a sympathetic expression settled on it. “Let’s go get the fudge.”

x

Sasuke’s mission commander turned out to be Jiraiya of the Sannin.

Sasuke had not expected this. Of course he had learnt about the Sage at the Academy, and of course he had heard a multitude of increasingly unflattering rumours, but the grotesque introduction – Kabuki pose, self-declaration as a proud ‘super-pervert’ – told him more than that.

Jiraiya, like Kakashi, was a clown. He was a shinobi of such skill and such reputation that he did not feel compelled to present himself seriously to the world. He treated everything like a giant joke.

Sasuke had had enough of being the butt of people’s jokes.

“You killed the ANBU,” Sasuke pointed out.

The Sage blinked with such exaggerated innocence that it turned Sasuke’s stomach. “ANBU…? Oh, you mean that illegal Root operative with explicit orders to abduct you into a black ops black hole if he could do it without witnesses?”

And that was it. That was it. Regardless of whether this half-missing nin was telling the truth or just using a terrifyingly plausible lie to manipulate him, Sasuke was never going back to that village. He was shocked he had managed to get away this time – and suspected that he had had a lot of help, from other people than just Jiraiya and Iruka (and probably Naruto, because it was becoming increasingly obvious that Naruto had his fingers, or at least his nose, in everything).

The old man sighed, dropped the droll poise, and squatted in the shadow of the birch next to Sasuke. “Look, kid. I get that you’ve got your own agenda. And after a while nobody will be guarding you here. If you do a runner, we’ll find out two weeks later when we rely on the fact that we have an operative here and discover that we don’t.” He shrugged, looking into the distance to emphasise how much he didn’t care. “We’re good at our jobs, so the chances one of us would die as a result are low, I grant you that.”

Sasuke clenched his jaw. He didn’t expect Jiraiya to look through him so easily. Even though he knew that the clownishness was just a façade. Jiraiya was far too similar to Naruto in many aspects, come to think of it, and Naruto had proved that there was a lot under the surface that Sasuke had never bothered to see or understand. And with Naruto that had turned out to be a mistake.

Of all the people in Konoha, in hindsight Naruto was one of the least… objectionable ones. Damned with faint praise as that made him.

This Sage was a Kage-level shinobi whose mere name frightened enemies, and by his own admission also the head of Konoha’s spy network – of course he was full of tricks. Tricks that he refused to teach. But tricks that could, perhaps, be learnt… if Sasuke didn’t squander his chance to observe.

Was it worth it? Could he afford to remain still for who knew how long, while that man roamed the Elemental Countries freely?

“So,” Jiraiya said just as Sasuke asked himself the key question, “I will give you a bit of incentive to stay and make something of yourself other than a dirty deserter.”

Sasuke scowled sideways at him. He hadn’t asked for any moral judgments. And certainly not from one of the people party to the oppression of his Clan, back when there was a Clan.

The Sage jauntily hopped to his feet and grinned, mean and a little intimidating: “I am going to offer you this: I will pass to you any reliable intelligence on Uchiha Itachi’s location that crosses my way.”

“Why would you do that?” Sasuke demanded. He hadn’t even decided to leave yet. He was sure he would survive going missing, but how long would it take him to gather the resources he would need to do more than survive? To grow and train and build his strength? Despite everything that made him hate the place, he had had good reasons to remain a Konoha ninja for this long.

“Interesting question,” acknowledged Jiraiya. “That has an interesting answer. You may guess. If you guess correctly, I will confirm.”

x

Annai broke the tree line and fell into step with Naruto.

Nishi-sensei was the only one who reacted at all, and even he aborted the motion well before his hand reached his senbon.

“Bear, nii-chan,” Annai reported. “Huuuge!”

Land of Rivers was a lot different from the places Naruto knew. In Fire the main roads twisted left and right around hills, and if there ever were any slopes, they were gentle. Paths followed rivers, and dodged around the steep cliffs.

Land of Waves was basically just bits of dirt sticking out of the ocean.

Land of Rives went up and up and up and then down and down and down. There were no plains to speak of, everything was mountains and valleys and sharp inclines with trees used to inhospitable conditions. And, apparently, bears.

“Dinner, taichou?” inquired Naruto.

Annai focused her best puppy dog eyes at Kakashi’s back. Sadly, he didn’t look back to appreciate their full power, so he simply replied: “Maa, if you can skin while running, Naruto…?”

“Slave-driver,” grumbled Annai, crestfallen at the dissolving vision of a belly full of bear meat.

“Lead the way,” Naruto bade and followed his huntmate through the thickening undergrowth toward an old, hollow tree with the tell-tale buzz of bees and smell of honey surrounding it. Naruto’s nose detected right away that there was just one bear, an old one, and there weren’t any cubs anywhere around.

“Too old to be good to eat,” Annai remarked, trying to convince herself that she wasn’t disappointed.

Naruto was about ready to scare the beast off the way he had seen Iruka-sensei scare off the honey badger, when he noticed the kunai.

It was sticking out of the bear’s back, and there were the ragged remains of a failed tag tied to its ring.

Naruto pulled out a stun tag of his own.

Five minutes later he caught up to his mission leader and offered the kunai-plus-tag for inspection, saying grimly: “Someone wants us to think Suna shinobi are hunting in these parts. It doesn’t even make sense, but we should be ready for sabotage.”

He felt senbon guy staring at him, but pretended he didn’t. The only reaction he was interested in right now was Dog-taichou’s.

Kakashi barely slowed down to stash the evidence in a storage seal, and then flashed a few hand-signs at senbon guy, who grabbed Nishi-sensei by the elbow and dragged him off the road.

“As expected,” said taichou, flashing an eye-smile in Naruto’s direction. “First partial objective: find who wants us to declare war on Sand so desperately they would try this gambit.”

x

Shikamaru had a new pet project. He had a lot of those, because not having one made him antsy, and he ended up observing anything and everything and driving himself to distraction with the overabundance of utterly useless input.

So he made it a point to have a few potential projects always prepared for the future moments when he would finish one and need to quickly pick up something else.

After he had been made chuunin (troublesome) and reassigned from Team Ten (pain in the arse, damn it), Chouji fell apart a little. It was a drag, since Chouji was a perfectly capable shinobi on his own, and this stupid notion of the Ino-Shika-Cho codependence had been only in his head. Because their parents had brainwashed it into them, but, oh well.

Then Ino cracked, partly for the same reason, and the rest of the way because she had laid eyes on Uchiha Sasuke again, and just couldn’t stop herself from playing with the headcase’s head.

Shikamaru had wished Sasuke would just sod off.

Looked like some wishes did come true. And he didn’t even have to do anything – Naruto took care of the initial problem that drove Ino to begging at the foot of Shikamaru’s bed (Shikamaru knew that style of chaos as only a long-time observer could – it was pure Phantom of Konoha) and the subsequent problem disappeared with the metaphorical slash across Uchiha’s hitai-ate.

So, both problems solved, Shikamaru needed something new to turn his attention to. And the thing that seemed like he could invest himself in investigating was figuring out the process of becoming a jounin. With the fervent intention of avoiding any of the actions that might result in him getting promoted.

Again.

Pain in the damn arse.

x

Sasuke sat down at a table at the roadside inn (not even a ryoukan, just an overgrown minshuku) and looked around. He started out skeptical, but in the end he could well imagine that a lot of intelligence was surreptitiously exchanged in establishments such as this.

“There, the waitress.” Jiraiya pointed out a mousy-haired woman gathering used dishes from an abandoned table.

She? Was this a joke? She looked like nothing. A slip of a civilian woman, and a homely one at that.

Sasuke gathered chakra to activate his Sharingan, but faster than he could do that – it took him less than a second – Jiraiya had a chakra-suppressing tag slapped against the side of Sasuke’s neck. “Don’t. You’re undercover. From now on you are Tomio, a boy who left his family to learn a trade, but whose prospective master rejected him. You refused to return home and face your parents and your siblings with the shame of failure… blah blah. You’ll make it up as you go. I prefer to let my agents have some freedom in the construction of their backstories. Whatever fits.”

Sasuke palpated for the paper stuck to his skin. Jiraiya smacked his fingers away – condescending as the action was, at least it reassured Sasuke that the seal was only active for as long as the tag itself was in contact with his skin, and could easily be removed at any time later.

“Is she really a kunoichi?” he asked, reluctantly putting both his hands on the table.

The Sage laughed. “Natsuko-san is one of the most dangerous people in my employ.”

Sasuke noticed the suffix; from the past two hours of their acquaintance and a brief spar that turned into a one-sided beatdown interspersed with trash-talk (which made Sasuke recall Naruto with fondness) he knew that Jiraiya didn’t use ‘san’ for people. The Fifth Hokage was ‘hime’ and the Third Hokage was ‘sensei’, but that was about it.

The Sage shuddered theatrically. “I’ll give you a piece of free advice, boy – do not offend her. I’m on my second strike… and consequently on my best behaviour.”

“Hn?” Sasuke looked more closely. There wasn’t anything of interest, still. The woman was younger than she appeared at first glance – probably in her early twenties – but her face was marked with the harshness of life. She was thin, bordering on emaciated. There could be hardly any strength in her limbs but, as Sasuke watched her, he noticed a subtle grace to her movements. And also an unexpected situational awareness.

Yes, she could be a kunoichi, despite the convincing disguise. She wore a cotton shirt with a vest over it, cinched tight around her slight waist, and a knee-length skirt. The skirt was nigh on scandalous for a civilian, but for a ninja would be considered positively demure. Moreover, the folds indicated that there was enough fabric that the garment did not limit her range of motion.

“Remember, Tomio-kun. Not worth your life to piss her off.”

If this all was a setup, and the kunoichi’s purpose here was to get impregnated, Sasuke had no qualms about killing her. Pissing her off would be a less desirable result, but he would take it.

Jiraiya magnanimously treated Sasuke to a lunch that, surprisingly, wasn’t completely disgusting. Afterwards they settled on the porch in front of the building; Jiraiya smoked his pipe and Sasuke sat and grinded his teeth, which was about as close as he could get to a semblance of patience.

The waitress came out before Jiraiya finished his pipe; she pulled out a cigarette, which the Sage ‘gallantly’ lit for her. They smoked in silence. Sasuke concentrated on his breathing, since the alternative was blowing something up.

Eventually both smokers were satisfied, and the waitress took both Jiraiya and Sasuke round the building to the back. She let them in through the servants’ entrance, behind which was a darkened hall with three doors and a narrow staircase leading up to the first floor, where the help roomed.

The kunoichi unlocked one of the rooms, directed both men to precede her, and closed the door behind her. Only then she spoke: “Clear.”

“Tomio,” Jiraiya said, “this is Natsuko. She’s a waitress here, and one of my best agents. Her cover for field work includes taking care of her very sick mother, so she will often be gone. You’ll need to cover the shifts she tragically has to miss.”

Sasuke understood the assignment. He was supposed to guard the meeting point, report any suspicious activity around this place, and act as the gofer for any information ‘Natsuko’ gathered. He nodded.

This was going to be terrible. But it was far less terrible than Seduction Corps would have been, very likely less terrible than black ops, and he had a miniscule hope that it wouldn’t be as bad as Team Ten either.

“I’ll go talk to Daisuke. Leave you two kids to get to know each other.” The old man grinned and sauntered out of the tiny room, letting the door slam shut behind him with a bang.

The kunoichi looked from the doorway to Sasuke, and in the process her glare dissipated. Her eyes were muddy brown and a little too intense for the rest of her bland appearance; Sasuke was unaccountably glad that she wasn’t glaring at him. She uncomfortably reminded him of Asuka.

“Hello, Tomio-kun,” she said. She inhaled to say something else, but was interrupted by a bout of coughing.

“Natsuko… san,” Sasuke replied stiffly. He had an uncomfortable feeling that he was already failing at his mission. He would have to get better at interacting with people.

This had never been a subject of interest to him.

“I have…” She paused for another cough. “…moved my things around. A bedroll will fit on the floor. You’re welcome to the bed when I’m not here, just…” Another cough wrecked her thin body.

Sasuke couldn’t understand how someone so sick could be any good at undercover work – but perhaps it was just a part of the cover? Or she was so good because nobody expected a sick person to be a spy?

In any case, he suspected that her condition would worsen if she slept on the floor, and he had no problems with using a bedroll. Compared to some other places shinobi were expected to sleep, the floor of a well-insulated room was luxury.

“Tsujimoto Daisuke-san is the owner of the inn,” Natsuko said after a long while of silence.

Sasuke thought he was probably supposed to say something, too, but nothing occurred to him.

Natsuko waited for almost a minute. When Sasuke did not speak, she added: “Meet me downstairs at eleven. I will show you around.”

Sasuke nodded. It was not as though him saying or not saying anything mattered.

He did not expect that their acquaintance would last long, anyway.

Chapter Text

A more careful search of the surrounding part of the forest – by which Kakashi meant summoning Akino, Uuhei and Urushi to help Naruto, Juuji and Annai – revealed a few more signs of Sand shinobi.

Most of them weren’t nearly as obviously contrived as Naruto’s first find, but their sheer bulk could have been only half-believable if an army of Sand shinobi had stayed around here for a month or so. Shinobi were not litterers.

“Any distinguishable human smell?” Kakashi inquired. His own nose could only pick up ‘human’ in general, and even that was half his brain filling in what he already knew.

Annoyingly, his three ninken looked to Naruto, as if the boy was the democratically elected speaker for the group with the superior olfactory sense. This wasn’t a reassuring trend.

“Four human or human-ish smells that we could sorta tell from one another-”

Differentiate,” Uuhei advised under his breath.

“Yeah,” Naruto said, rubbing the back of his head, “differentiate. Anyway, could have been a lot more, ‘cause it’s been a while, but these were the people that actually handled all this stuff.” He waved his hand at the pile of damaged weapons, discarded pieces of clothing (uniformly desert-specific) and even a ‘lost’ Suna hitai-ate.

There was no kill like overkill.

“And if they were, like, family or something, we’re reading them as one person. I mean, it’s been a week, and it rained a bit in between and…” Naruto shrugged helplessly.

Still an absurdly good job, Kakashi mused. At this point it would soon become inefficient to assign himself and Naruto to the same team – especially if searching or hunting was the objective of the mission. Oh, well. Kakashi would enjoy tormenting the kid while he had the chance.

In the meantime, here was to hoping that he’d form an understanding with Genma and Nishi-sensei – two of the most easy-going people Kakashi knew. So far so good. Kakashi was… not entirely pessimistic about this endeavour.

“Are we going to hunt a sabotage squad all over the mountains?” asked Genma from the huddle he formed with Nishi-sensei, sharing their mutual bubble of tolerant skepticism.

How nice to see the bonds between team-members flourish. If only they would deign to include the bratling, too.

“That…” Nishi-sensei said, looking up from organizing a set of poisons (which were the only part of their loot they were interested in keeping), “doesn’t sound optimal. Especially since they’ve had time to get the lay of the land and probably set up a few ugly surprises for us.”

Kakashi pouted. Was that censure? Was the medic nin chastising him about letting Naruto and the ninken comb through a possibly booby-trapped forest?

Frankly, Kakashi had more faith in Naruto than in Genma when it came to spotting and circumventing traps. Based, admittedly, on Iruka’s years of frustration with the boy and Anko’s stories about the Phantom of Konoha – but those were definitely more reliable indicators than school grades. Also, Genma was a lot better at people than at mechanisms.

“What alternative do we have?” Kakashi inquired, striking a thinking pose.

Genma, being the spoilsport he was, refused to play along. “That’s what we’re asking you, taichou…?”

Still, Genma wasn’t the one who needed to learn (he just needed to learn to let others learn, the overbearing mother-hen).

“Hm?” Kakashi tilted his head, but didn’t go as far as to open his eye.

“Yeah, yeah,” Naruto grumbled, finally catching his cue. “We get them to come to us. By being a danger to their goals, right? Which means… what exactly? Extending a hand in friendship to our ex-invader neighbours?”

“That’s plan B,” Kakashi confirmed with false cheer. Diplomacy. Iruka was far better at those things, and that was saying something, because Iruka’s patience for bullshit was far lower than Kakashi’s own. “Plan A is getting here-” He stuck his finger into the map that had appeared in his hands a split-second ago (pulled out of a sealing scroll, of course, but a good ninja didn’t reveal his tricks). “-and heroically saving the village from the sabotage squad’s guerilla tactics.”

“Ugh…” Naruto rolled his eyes and dropped down to pat flanks and scratch ears to show his appreciation, since no one taught him not to spoil his summons. “…should have figured the game’s rigged. Good to know the Hokage office gets some useful intel.”

Kakashi decided to leave that can of worms untouched.

Let someone else deal with the future problem that was Naruto’s open disdain for Jiraiya.

x

They watched as the sore-pawed couple walked up to Iruka’s back while he sat alone at the ramen place’s counter. The man took the seat on Iruka’s right, the woman on his left.

Guruko rose to his feet. “Sod the stealth part of the mission. I’m going in.” From his vantage point there were four exposed enemy ankles, and he knew just how to bite to sever the tendons-

“Wait,” said Bisuke.

Guruko forced himself to remain in place, but cast a glare sideways at his bodyguarding partner. “They cornered him.”

Bisuke grinned. “Oh, yeah. Yup. Absolutely. And we all know what rats do when they’re cornered, don’t we? This is going to be fun.”

Guruko’s frown deepened. “I thought we agreed on hedgehog?”

Bisuke shrugged. “Sure. But when it comes down to it, a hedgehog is basically a rat with an armoury on his back. Now shut up, I want to hear this.”

x

Dinner at Ichiraku’s was a pure indulgence after a hard morning spent at diplomatic work and an even harder afternoon full of secret meetings and intelligence gathering stuff on a scale that made Iruka very uncomfortable.

But, Sasuke’s cover was now firmly established, and as details would trickle out of the Tower to the public over the course of an ‘investigation’, it was Iruka’s task to play the clueless Academy teacher that believed in his former pupil’s innocence, but was becoming gradually disillusioned.

He glumly stirred his noodles and missed Naruto, who wasn’t sitting next to him where he belonged.

“I heard Uchiha killed an ANBU before he defected,” said a familiar voice.

Iruka didn’t flinch, warned by the approaching footsteps, but he still said a silent goodbye to his nice dinner and steeled himself to play his role. This wasn’t the first time a prank of his had come back to bite him on the arse, and at least this time he held nearly all the important cards in his hand.

Just because there were two of them, both jounin and therefore stronger and faster than him, it didn’t mean they had the advantage.

“Oh,” Iruka said and made it a point to focus on his ramen while Asuma and Kurenai took seats on both sides of him, like a pair of Yakuza enforcers. He imagined them lumbering and dragging their knuckles on the ground, and then chased the picture away, because this was not the time to be laughing. “That’s funny,” he said flatly.

“Funny is how those sorts of tendencies don’t get noticed at the Shinobi Academy,” said Kurenai, ever the more straightforwardly aggressive one between them. “That’s your second traitor in, what – half a year?”

“Well,” Iruka said with affability that, he knew, made people think he was a lot more naïve than he really was, “I rather thought the accusation was funny because the ANBU Commander reported full roster this morning. There are three hospitalised operatives at the moment, but no fatalities.” Iruka let his eyes widen as far as they would go, and very pointedly bit down on his lower lip. Whoops… look at me casually dropping some very confidential intel in an effort to make myself look smart. Intel which, of course, he had been instructed to casually drop to some likely jounin, and how nice of these two to volunteer. “You should inform Hokage-sama about these rumours, sensei. It’s very concerning if the ANBU Commander can’t correctly count his own people. And even more concerning if we have ANBU imposters in the village.”

There. The idea of ‘ANBU imposters’ seeded. Now just to watch it grow in this fertile earth.

For a moment Iruka wondered if Asuma would spontaneously combust. He looked calm, but in the way a statue of an angry person looked calm. And there was a flush creeping up from the collar of his mesh undershirt.

“I’ve seen the body,” Kurenai said sharply. “That boy murdered someone-”

“If he was being abducted of course he defended himself,” Iruka replied with his best imitation of blitheness. “I am very proud of him, and very sad that his efforts weren’t enough.”

“You just don’t want to admit that you missed not one, but two traitors in your immediate circle of acquaintances,” retorted Asuma. The flush had dispersed by now as the man regained his footing in the conversation and shifted closer to Iruka, violating his intimate sphere. “Or maybe you didn’t miss them. Maybe you just didn’t report them.”

Iruka counted in his head. His inhales and exhales were carefully measured, the way he had learnt to breathe through accusations of being a traitor when he was nine. Nine and newly orphaned and surrounded by children whose own pain drove them to be exceptionally cruel.

“I…” Iruka spoke, and swallowed the knee-jerk response of ‘am very sad that your inability to teach three preteens drove your most promising student away from you as fast as possible and resulted in the clusterfuck that has you on probation even now’ together with a narutomaki from his ramen bowl. “…understand that you have been put into a very difficult position as Sasuke’s current commanding officer, Asuma-sensei.”

Before he could continue, Kurenai tried to cut in. “Thank you for that line, Umino-sensei – do they teach that at the Hokage Tower-?”

“And worse than that,” Iruka continued, finally lifting his eyes to meet Asuma’s, even though he still wasn’t entirely certain that Kurenai wouldn’t take the opportunity to try something devious and probably genjutsu-related behind his back, “I know that this must feel like a personal failure. It certainly did feel like that to me when Mizuki’s treachery was finally revealed. I assure you that Yamanaka-san was not any less thorough in his interrogation simply because I was in a hospital bed at the time with an uncertain prognosis.”

This was a little bit of an exaggeration, because no one had seriously believed that Iruka had been in on that utterly stupid plot. The reminder of Iruka’s injuries (he had only had a couple of cracked ribs, but that was not publicly available information) did work to unsettle Asuma’s footing again.

What, had these two expected Iruka to weep and plead for their belief in his innocence? They were thirteen years too late. The bullies at the Academy had helped thicken his skin against this sort of libel.

And, honestly, he was still officially the Hokage’s aide, and cooperated with her (if by the proxy of shadow clones) daily. What was this harassment really about?

“Teuchi-san, could I trouble you for a glass of water?” he inquired, reminding his companions that they were not actually unobserved, and that simply because the Ichiraku were civilians it did not mean they were blind or deaf.

“Sure thing, sensei, be right there.”

“I am certain,” Iruka said to Asuma, “that this tragic incident won’t reflect on your teaching once the matter is cleared up. Many people over the years have tried to hurt Sasuke-kun, or use him for their own purposes. Even Orochimaru had confessed to an interest in the boy. I am…” He paused and tried to imagine how he would feel if Sasuke truly had been abducted in the middle of the night from right under his nose. “…just angry and appalled that we did not manage to protect him as he deserved.”

He could feel the fight draining out of Asuma. Oh, he must have hit some sensitive buttons in there. Failure to protect, huh?

The man pulled a cigarette out of his pouch and bit down on it.

Teuchi-san placed Iruka’s glass of water in front of him with a quick glance at the ‘no smoking at the counter’ sign.

Asuma did not make a move to light his cigarette.

“You do have a tendency to pity the aggressors,” Kurenai pointed out – aggressively. Like a stepped-on grass snake.

Maybe Iruka shouldn’t have stepped on her – but, well, what was all his power for if not to defend what was his and precious to him? She should not have let ambition, fear of marginalisation and jealousy of Kakashi’s well-earned position goad her into trying to bully Kakashi. Not that it had worked, but Iruka felt entitled to his own pound of flesh in restitution.

“I understand that sometimes people seem aggressive when, in fact, they are only frightened,” Iruka retorted and, when coupled with meeting her eyes and projecting the weight behind his statement through his stare, she got it.

She clenched her jaw but remained silent, too; well aware that if she fought back she would simply be validating Iruka’s accusation.

Iruka smiled over the counter. “Thank you, Teuchi-san. Excellent as always.”

Teuchi-san grinned back. “Eh, come again soon, sensei. I miss Naruto-kun, and it’s nice to have pleasant company. And what can I get for you two, shinobi-san?”

Iruka took his leave, nodding to the two jounin with all the professional friendliness he had cultivated over his tenure at the Academy, and went home before it occurred to them to follow him. He still did not want anybody to know where he lived.

x

“Double knock-out!” Bisuke announced cheerfully.

Guruko grinned and jumped forth to follow on the heels of their mark. One more proof that Kakashi had struck gold when he picked his mate.

x

Jiraiya woke up to a toad jumping onto his face.

He dodged in a nick of time and then squinted at the horizon, where the sun was just setting.

“Thanks, Gamakichi,” he grumbled. “Old age sucks. Times were, I could camp out for a month and not feel it in the mornings.”

“You should be sleeping at night if you wanna wake up in the morning,” Gamakichi informed him sagely. “And it’s always better if you sleep at an inn.”

Of this Jiraiya was well aware. Unfortunately, he was at the moment laying a false trail for the Konoha retrieval team to follow and, as he was playing a frightened thirteen-year-old boy on the run from his village, sleeping at inns would compromise his story. Little Uchiha might have had money, but even he wasn’t as arrogant as to not even try and stay inconspicuous.

It wasn’t easy to strike the right amount of incompetence for a genius gennin so that the trail was clear but not as easy to follow as to seem intentional. Jiraiya gave it his best effort.

“Tell your Dad I’m fine. I’ll cross the Land of Rice Fields tonight, unless I stumble over something crucial. I’ll summon you or your brother when I need a guard again.” He needed a discreet alarm clock rather than a guard, but couching it in more dignified terms made the little toads happy.

“Sure thing, Jiraiya!” Gamakichi replied happily, and dismissed himself.

Jiraiya sighed. He had thought of Naruto inheriting the toad contract as a done deal. It had never occurred to him that Naruto might not want it. Might not want anything at all from him, in fact.

Ah, well. Want it or not, Jiraiya was not going to stop doing his best to protect his Godson. And that meant a trip through the tumultuous Rice Fields, then through Hot Water to Frost, making short check-ins with his contacts. He didn’t expect to learn much, since most Akatsuki activity was concentrated on the other side of the continent, but this way he could catch a ship to the Land of Waves and get back from that direction, while letting his pursuers believe that Uchiha Sasuke had gone on to the Land of Lightning.

Where, everyone knew, he would be welcome with open arms, because Cloud ninja were all hot for doujutsu.

x

“Your Mother loves you,” Shikamaru’s Dad had assured him in the early, early morning, while he was heartlessly pulling Shikamaru out of bed.

And, sure, Shikamaru knew she loved him. He just wished it didn’t translate into having such high ambitions for him. He would have been perfectly happy with that courier mission he was supposed to get – next week.

It wasn’t like they were even at real war. They had headed off the real war for this play-pretend official state of warfare, of which Shikamaru personally completely approved. Also, he suspected that the ‘they’ might have at least partially consisted of ‘Naruto’, but at the moment he was still working on constructing a viable hypothesis that would fit this realisation into his worldview.

He looked around at the perfectly tranquil forest – golden rays of sunlight streaming through vividly green canopy, birds chirping, small animals scuttling around – and sighed. This was too nice a day for a paradigm shift. He was postponing that-

“Keep up, pekopeko, or we’ll leave you behind!” his Mother called out.

Shikamaru identified the tone of voice as gleeful, so it was obviously just an attempt to humiliate him before his colleagues rather than an actual complaint on her part. Toge-san and his partner Yasha sniggered.

Tomoko-san didn’t. But she was an Aburame, so the lack of outward reaction did not mean much. Also, she had made tokubetsu jounin on the strength of her genjutsu, which combined with her kikaichu was a lot more intimidating than it sounded, and Shikamaru just did not want to find himself a target for her amusement.

“I like this place,” Shikamaru replied, hunching over. “I think I’ll become a hermit. Take my hitai-ate back to the Hokage and tell her I wish her all the luck-”

“Should I go kick him in the cushion?” asked Inuzuka Toge in what wasn’t half as quiet a voice as he imagined he was using. It was clearly a rhetorical question since, being Nara Yoshino’s former gennin teammate, he had known Shikamaru for all of his life.

Shikamaru would have pointed out the factual inaccuracy – his arse was made of muscle and some very sharp bone, which, incidentally, made it extremely uncomfortable to sit on hard surfaces – but he didn’t want to invite a taijutsu attack from Toge-san.

He knew better than that.

“Eh, he’s just whining,” said Shikamaru’s Mother. “It’s easier to let him get it out than argue and give him a reason to dig his heels in.”

Foiled, Shikamaru thought, unsurprised. People always remembered that his Dad was a genius, and that was the smokescreen his Mother used with relish and to many unfortunates’ belated horror.

“This is so contrived,” Shikamaru grumbled. “I don’t know Uchiha Sasuke enough to be of any help-”

“You went to the same class with him for five years,” his Mother snapped, and there was that long-suffering tone that heralded an imminent dispensation of pain and regret upon those who caused her discontent.

Shikamaru cringed. “More like, I slept through five years of classes. If you wanted me to spy on him, you should have said so.” Frankly, if Shikamaru would have watched any of his classmates out of genuine interest, it would have been Shino. Or Naruto, alright, but only since he became the Phantom of Konoha.

That was… cool. For someone of their age and training.

His Mother body-flickered and appeared in front of him, giving him a minor attack of nerves. While he focused on breathing evenly, she stood on a low branch and folded her arms in front of her chest. She tapped her foot.

Shikamaru swallowed.

“I would have preferred to take Naruto-kun along,” she said mercilessly, “but Kakashi-kun stole him away.” She pouted.

Shikamaru knew for a fact that she wasn’t nearly close enough with Hatake Kakashi to call him that, and that she held enough respect for the elite jounin that there would have been a politer suffix if they were meeting face to face.

“So try and not make me regret taking you along, chuunin,” she concluded. “Get your arse in gear and act like a shinobi of Leaf.”

Shikamaru shrugged at her. Whatever she said. He did regret being dragged along, and he was taking it out on everybody by not reminding the rest of the party that they had veered off course an hour ago and were now following a decoy. Saying it once had been enough, right?

Shikamaru had allegedly been dragged along for his insight, but his insight wasn’t wanted. When he tried to speak up, Toge-san had shut him down with some self-congratulatory spiel about his superior sense of smell and tracking abilities. So, sure, no skin off Shikamaru’s nose if he just tagged along to even out the numbers.

Maybe Yasha should not have pushed him into the blackberry bush. Maybe Tomoko-san should not have told Shikamaru to ‘watch how the experienced hunters work and learn something’.

Another reason – the one he would state in his report – for why he didn’t argue was that he couldn’t explain it. The best he had was that it didn’t add up in his head (yes, he knew that there was a good chance his Mother would actually accept this as valid reasoning, but he decided to pretend that he didn’t know that). The Inuzuka was obviously following his nose, so the decoy-creator had to be good at this, but Uchiha had no earthly reason to run this way.

Shikamaru trusted his brain over his senses. He trusted his brain over other people’s senses, too.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said despondently, and followed in the wake of a bunch of chuunin and tokubetsu jounin led around by an Inuzuka’s nose.