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It's For A Good Cause, I Swear!

Chapter Text

Kakashi looked at the scroll in his hands with great interest. The man who had hired them for the exceedingly dangerous but rather tedious A-Rank mission hadn't had enough money to cover the fee, but had promised them some valuable scrolls in to make up the difference. Most of that had gone to Godaime to do with what she would, but this…well, this was a little too interesting to pass up.

"What is it?" Naruto demanded impatiently. "You've been staring at that thing for the past hour!"

"I have not," Kakashi lied.

"Kakashi-Sensei's right," Sakura sided with her teacher. Kakashi shot her a grateful look, but she wasn't finished. "He's been staring at it for the past hour and three minutes," she finished with a smirk.

"Is it a powerful jutsu?" Sasuke asked. "Because if it's not, I've got better ways of wasting my time."

"At least it's not porn this time," Sakura tried to be positive.

Sasuke snorted. "I wouldn't be too sure…"

Kakashi ignored his three students, trying to decide whether or not he should share this with them. It was highly irresponsible, of course, and if anyone had thought to do so, it would be highly illegal as well. The man who had hired them clearly had no idea what he was parting with.

"This scroll contains a time travel jutsu," Kakashi said gravely, deciding that since Naruto had finally made good on his age-old promise to kick Sasuke's ass and bring him back home – stopping Madara and saving the world in the process – none of them were really the world-conquering types and as Naruto didn't believe in revenge, Sasuke had already gotten his, and Sakura really hadn't had anything too horrible by ninja standards happen to her, it was reasonably safe to share.

"A time travel jutsu?" Sakura repeated skeptically. "I've never heard of anything like that. Even if it were possible, the energy required to use it would just be…" she trailed off, unable to think of a way to describe it.

Kakashi shrugged. "That's the other reason I'm telling you. If the four of us do it at the same time, it should be powerful enough. Assuming, of course, Naruto uses the Kyuubi."

"When would we go back to?" Naruto asked.

"Whenever," Kakashi replied. "We each have to pick a point in our lives that we'd like to relive and start over from there. I should warn you not to go back TOO far, because then you're stuck reliving your entire childhood as an adult and that would get very old, very fast. There's no way to get back to now, though, so think carefully before you decide: Do you want to use this?"

"Hell yeah!" Naruto shouted, pumping his fists in the air excitedly. "Just think of all the people I could help! I could save Haku, and old man Hokage, and Asuma! And I could help Gaara, and Neji, and…well, pretty much all my other friends with their various issues that much sooner! And I could kill Orochimaru!"

"…Well, it's nice to know you have a plan," Kakashi said, feeling that Naruto was probably getting a little ahead of himself. And who was Haku again?

"I guess it would be nice to see if I could make a difference by not being useless at the beginning when everything started going to hell," Sakura mused.

"Sasuke?" Kakashi questioned the last member of his initial team.

Sasuke smirked. "I'm sure I could think of some way to occupy myself."

Choosing not to press for answers lest he hear something that would make him reconsider, Kakashi smiled brightly – not that anyone could tell beneath the mask, of course, but it was really the thought that counted – and said cheerfully, "Let's do it, then."

----

Kakashi knew EXACTLY where he'd wanted to be. The minute he saw the words 'Time Travel' he knew. And he'd had so many flashbacks back to this day over the years, that he was certain he could get it right. If not….well, he was a good twenty years older and more experienced since then, and hadn't he and Rin always agreed that had Minato-Sensei been there, things wouldn't have ended so tragically? Sure he'd miss his trademark Sharingan eye – and if he lost his left eye AGAIN then there would be some real hell to pay, regardless of how everything else worked out – but Obito's life would be worth the inconvenience. And it's not like there wouldn't be plenty of unused Sharingan eyes a few years down the road if he was really desperate anyway…

"Are you even listening to me?" Obito demanded angrily.

"Not even slightly," Kakashi confessed, a smile crossing his face despite himself as he climbed to his feet. Obito had apparently knocked him to the ground. Not surprising, if this was the infamous Rescue Rin conversation.

"I definitely can't stand you!" Obito yelled, furious that his heartfelt pleas to go and rescue Rin didn't even seem to merit the 'commander's' attention.

"That hurts, really," Kakashi said, half-serious.

"You know what else hurts?" Obito asked rhetorically. "The thought of us abandoning Rin to her fate!"

"Of course we're not going to abandon Rin!" Kakashi said, shocked.

"You can't expect these guards to work out the logical reasons to keep her alive and do so!" Obito told him. "They could kill her at any time! We don't have time to finish the mission and come back and hope she's there!"

"I absolutely agree," Kakashi said solemnly.

Poor Obito was so surprised he practically fell over. "…You do?" he asked finally, wondering what the trick is.

Kakashi nodded eagerly. "Oh, definitely."

"What happened to 'in the ninja world, those who do not obey the rules and regulations are trash'?" Obito asked suspiciously.

"That's true," Kakashi allowed. "But on the other hand…those who do not care about their companions are worse than trash." His grin grew as he quoted the words Obito had not yet spoken but had changed his life back to him.

If Obito was surprised before… "Okay, who are you and what have you done with Kakashi?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kakashi said airily.

"You JUST said that we should leave Rin. Just two minutes ago," Obito pointed out. "That's why I punched you."

"That I did," Kakashi agreed. "I changed my mind."

"Clearly," Obito muttered. "WHY? Not that I'm not in support of this change of opinion, because I definitely am but…I don't get it."

"It occurred to me that my father was, in fact, a true hero after all," Kakashi explained. "And it wouldn't do very well to shame his memory by leaving Rin to die, now would it?"

Obito stared at him. "You…just decided that? In the time it took you to get up after I punched you?"

Kakashi nodded. "Yes. Maybe you too have Therapy Jutsu. In fact, I'm nearly positive that you do."

"Therapy Jutsu?" Obito repeated, still rather unbalanced from this recent turn of events.

"Therapy Jutsu," Kakashi confirmed. "It's where your fighting someone, they suddenly flash back to their tragic childhood, realize that they were being an idiot and why, and change the course of their life."

"That…sounds kind of unlikely," Obito confessed.

Kakashi shrugged. "I've seen it happen." Practically every time Naruto got within two feet of a fight, really.

"Well…okay, then. This is unexpected. Good, but unexpected. Let's go after Rin, then!" Obito declared.

----

"You know, I had an entire speech planned, too," Obito complained as they approached their destination. "It was a good speech, too! But it's like you took the words right out of my mouth!"

"You're imagining things," Kakashi lied, wondering vaguely if he should be concerned how well he remembered what was going on. He wasn't that obsessive, was he? Oh, who was he trying to kid? He relived this day at the memorial every time he went…which was every day. It would actually be kind of weird if he didn't remember it this well.

"Found them," Obito breathed as they spotted the cave the Rin was being kept in. "What's the plan?"

Kakashi thought for a moment, then figured that since it had worked last time, they might as well try it again. The less variables the better chance he had of controlling the outcome. "You go ahead a little. Act like you're trying to be stealthy but failing. There are two of them, so since they think we're just a bunch of kids one of them will come out while the other stays with Rin. I can kill whoever comes out from behind."

"Alright…Commander," Obito agreed.

It was silly, of course, and he had had his authority acknowledged many, many times over the years, but hearing it from Obito was…nice. He hoped he'd earn that respect in the next few minutes because he really wasn't sure he could handle losing him all over again. They weren't even that close back when Obito was alive – something he was determined to rectify the minute this hostage crisis was over – but he'd made such an big impact on his life posthumously. Not to mention that while he still felt guilty that his hesitance to go after Rin the first time might have played a role in Obito's death, that was nothing compared to how hard it would hit him if he KNEW it was coming but failed to prevent it.

"Alright, let's go…" Obito said, moving close.

"To where?" Taiseki asked, materializing right behind Obito as Kakashi knew he would.

Quickly, the 'newly minted' Jounin Body Flickered over to them and held a kunai to Taiseki's throat. "To rescue our teammate," he answered as he slit the enemy ninja's throat, feeling rather pleased that he'd managed to avenge his eye all these years later. Better watch that talk of vengeance, though. He didn't want to be Sasuke, after all.

"Wow," Obito said, his eyes wide. "He didn't even have a chance to react!"

"That was the idea," Kakashi said dryly. "Now when we go in there, I need you to free Rin and get out. Watch out for falling rocks and leave Kakko to me."

"Who?" Obito asked, confused.

"The enemy ninja," Kakashi explained.

"…Why do you know his name?" Obito still didn't get it.

"Because I'm amazing, obviously," Kakashi said coolly. Or rather, because he'd obsessively pieced together what he could about that day in the weeks to follow. That didn't make him sound nearly as cool, though. God, he'd really been spending too much time with Gai, hadn't he? Speaking of, since he wasn't planning on receiving his signature Sharingan this time around…he might actually have to start training with him. Not as compulsively, obviously, but he needed an edge somehow, right?

"Not the word I would use, but…let's go," Obito said, running towards the mouth of the cave and immediately engaging Kakko.

Kakashi groaned. "What did I tell him? He's as bad as Naruto, I swear!" As Obito was apparently busy, Kakashi hurried to Rin's side and quickly dispelled the illusion and untied her.

Rin blinked blurrily. "Kakashi? I-what? Oh!" Her eyes went wide as they found her other teammate. "Obito! His eyes!"

A quick glance confirmed for him that Obito had just awakened his Sharingan. Good. He'd completely forgotten about that in his effort to shut Taiseki down quickly and not lose his precious eye. Still, he'd better lend a hand.

"Are you okay to walk?" Kakashi asked.

"Yes," Rin nodded, getting shakily to her feet.

"Wait near the exit for us," Kakashi instructed. "It shouldn't take long." Without waiting to see if she'd listen – he knew she would, of course – he turned towards the battle and through a shuriken at Kakko. He dodged it easily, but that gave Obito an opportunity to knock him down.

"We did it!" Obito beamed when he didn't get up after several moments.

Knowing that Kakko was either faking or would be regaining consciousness shortly, Kakashi shook his head grimly. "Not. Yet. Chidori!" he cried as he killed Obito's would-be murderer.

"Minato-Sensei said not to use that," Obito pointed out.

"I've completed it," Kakashi replied.

"…In one day?" Obito couldn't believe it.

"Is that any harder to believe than me changing my entire belief system in the course of one punch?" Kakashi asked rhetorically as he and the very much alive Uchiha made their way out of the very much not collapsing cave.

"Hey, don't diss the Therapy Jutsu!" Obito laughed.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Kakashi promised.

"Uh, guys?" Rin piped up. "Much as I hate to interrupt now that you two are actually getting along but…reinforcements showed up."

"Doton Retsudo Tenshou!" Several of the many reinforcements said, putting his hands to the ground. Recognizing that jutsu as the one that had lead to Obito's death, Kakashi quickly grabbed BOTH of his teammates and hightailed it out of the path of the collapsing cave. Once he was clear, he grabbed Minato's special kunai and threw it. With any luck, his Sensei would soon appear and…there he was. He had a really fast response time, didn't he? But then, since he wasn't supposed to know what the kunai did and it was shaped weird, he probably assumed Kakashi wouldn't use it if he wasn't out of options.

"Wow…Sensei is awesome," Rin said, watching Minato take down opponent after opponent and showed them exactly why he was known as Konoha's Yellow Flash.

"You think that's cool?" Obito asked. "You should try watching it with the Sharingan. Now THAT'S cool."

"I know," Kakashi agreed, remembering several times when he'd done just that.

"What?" Obito asked.

"I said 'I'm still waiting for that 'You Made Jounin' present'..."

----

"I'm very proud of all of you," Minato told them as they made camp for the night. "Rin, even though you were captured and tortured under genjutsu, you did not reveal anything to the enemy. Obito, you found your courage, awoke your Sharingan, and proved yourself as a truly capable Shinobi of Konoha. And Kakashi…I honestly never thought I'd say this, but you have learned the true meaning of teamwork."

"What about our mission?" Rin asked. "We kind of forgot about that…"

Minato smiled warmly at them. "Unexpected delays happen all the time on missions. I took down the Shinobi I needed to, so I can join you on your part tomorrow."

"The Kanabi Bridge is SO going down," Obito declared boldly.

"I bet I'll destroy it first," Kakashi challenged impulsively.

"Oh, you are so on," Obito said heatedly.

"Oh, that reminds me," Kakashi said suddenly, turning to his female teammate. "Rin, Obito's totally in love with you." It wouldn't do to let Obito die without telling her how he felt AGAIN, now would it? Really, he was going Obito a favor.

"What?" Rin asked, surprised.

"KAKASHI!" Obito shouted and lunged at his friend.

Kakashi smiled to himself as he ran from the enraged Uchiha. That had worked out very well. Better than he'd hoped, even. Not only was Obito alive, but they were well on their way to becoming friends and were reminding him so much of Naruto and Sasuke's rivalry that it was ridiculous. With Obito not having died for Rin's sake, she wouldn't be all depressed and go off and get herself killed. If Obito could be convinced to leave the Uchiha Compound before the massacre – he knew the date, having dealt with Sasuke for years and was not above resorting to kidnapping to keep Obito safe that night. Maybe Obito could even take in Sasuke, so he'd stop brooding so much about having no family. He wasn't quite sure what to do about Minato, but since he knew about Madara and that was the only reason the Kyuubi attacked…well, he had a few years to figure something out. If nothing else, he could always take Naruto in if there was nothing to be done for Minato or Kushina. Hm, speaking of his former/future students (for he would, of course, have to take them if only for old time's sake), he wondered what they had used their chance to time travel for.

Surely they were using it for a noble purpose like he was…right?

On the other hand, perhaps it was for the best that he'd never know.

Chapter Text

When Naruto heard about the chance to change the past, his first thought was 'well, my childhood sucked so I might as well skip on to my genin days.' He realized something, though: while Sakura's fangirlness was annoying (especially as he was no longer blindly infatuated with her and liked her as a person now), it was nothing compared to Sasuke moping about revenge all the time. What's more, having to waste four years of his life tracking Sasuke down was kind of a drag and he didn't want to go through that again. And what on Earth had the boy been THINKING to go after Orochimaru or all people? For God's sake, the snake sannin was even more of a pervert than Jiraiya as far as Naruto was concerned. Granted, he didn't go around spying on hot springs – not that Naruto knew of, at any rate – or declaring himself a super pervert, but then again at least Jiraiya didn't regularly go around giving hickeys to prepubescent girls and boys before convincing them to go live with him.

So instead of starting at twelve, Naruto elected to start at eight. Surely he could put up with a measly four years of continuing to be alone? Well, not completely alone if he played his cards right with Sasuke. The massacre was going to happen. If the ridiculously diplomatic Third Hokage hadn't been able to stop it, an eight-year-old outcast like himself sure as hell wouldn't.

So, what to do, what to do…by himself, not much. He could always follow Sasuke around until the other boy accepted that they were friends, in which case he might not be so bitter growing up and be less inclined to try and kill him later and abandon Konoha. Last time, Sasuke hadn't accepted it until he decided that if Naruto was going to try and stop him then he might as well get a Mangekyou Sharingan out of the deal.

Naruto wandered around town as he pondered and eventually ended up at Ichiraku Ramen Bar. He grinned, pleased to see his favorite restaurant before Ayame had gone crazy and turned it into a Tsukemen bar. Granted, he could easily turn it BACK into ramen, but it was rather, dare he say it, troublesome and Ayame always yelled at him every time he did that.

Entering the eating establishment, Naruto glanced around idly when he froze. "Oh my God…is Kakashi actually on a date? With Anko? And…hey, you two look familiar. Aren't you dead?" he blurted out. Oops. So much for subtle.

"What do you mean 'with Anko'?" Anko demanded suspiciously. "Who else would he be out with? Because I swear to god, Hatake, if you're cheating on me, I will emasculate you with a toothpick."

Kakashi gulped. "I would never do such a thing! I already have the most amazing girlfriend around right here."

"That's better," Anko said, sounding satisfied.

"Well, second most amazing, really," a man who looked vaguely like Sasuke said. And Naruto was pretty sure he'd seen him somewhere before, but not personally. REALLY sure he was supposed to be dead…oh, well, it was possible he died sometime in the next four years or so. "After all, she's not Rin."

Eye twitching, Anko reached for a kunai.

"Don't mind him," the brown-haired woman – Rin? – interceded smoothly. "He's clearly biased."

"Now, that that's settled, there's something I need to talk to Naruto about. I shouldn't be long," Kakashi promised as he stood and practically dragged Naruto over to an empty corner of the room. "Well? What have you got to say for yourself?"

"What do you mean?" Naruto asked, only half-feigning ignorance.

"You seemed surprised to see me with Anko when you should know we've been dating for a little over six months now and when you saw Rin and Obito, you said they were supposed to be dead," Kakashi pointed out, eyes deadly serious.

Naruto's eyes widened in realization. "Your eyes…"

"My eyes?" Kakashi repeated neutrally.

"You don't have a Sharingan," Naruto breathed, trying to get over how weird it looked to see his ex-teacher without a hitai-ite covering his eye or even a Sharingan eye.

Kakashi just blinked at him, looking stunned. "…Naruto?" he asked hesitantly.

"I thought we'd already established that you knew who I was," Naruto told him, wondering if he would have to somehow prove his identity. Well, that would be easy enough as Kakashi already knew about the Kyuubi, but HE wasn't exactly supposed to know yet…

"No, I mean," Kakashi shook his head, trying to sort his words out. "You came back, too? I expected different timelines."

Realizing that his teacher was being vague enough so that he, at eight, wouldn't realize what Kakashi was talking about unless he knew exactly what Kakashi was talking about, Naruto managed a small smile. "Me too. I guess because we all did it together the two of us ended up in the same spot. Did Sasuke and Sakura come back yet?"

Kakashi shook his head. "Not that I'm aware of and, believe me, I've kept my eye on you three. Sakura probably won't come back until she at least makes genin because the worst thing that happened to her before then was 'picked on for insecurities about her forehead' and she wouldn't very well wish to relive her childhood over that. I don't think she would be crazy enough to try and change anything about Sasuke's situation and you she could always make things up to when you were on my team again. As for Sasuke… I honestly don't know where he is. I expected he'd want to be here today, but maybe he doesn't think he can change it either and I wouldn't blame him not to want to relieve the aftermath. That is why you're here, isn't it? The massacre?"

Naruto laughed sheepishly. "Well…yeah. But let's get to that in a minute. Tell me what you did, first. They were your teammates, right? You managed to save them?"

Kakashi nodded. "I saved Obito. Because of that, somewhere down the line, Rin didn't die."

"And they got together? I thought you told me once that your team was like ours in the beginning: cheerful boy likes girl who likes emo boy," Naruto pointed out.

Kakashi nodded again. "That's true. However, after Obito died and made me promise to take care of Rin, I always saw her as the girl Obito loved, and it's not like I could change that after these years. Eventually, Rin realized that I was never going to be interested and, over time, she fell for Obito."

"And you went with Anko?" Naruto still couldn't believe it. "Are you crazy?"

Kakashi shrugged. "We're all crazy, Naruto, it's part of the job description. The most 'normal' of all of us was Sakura, and look how useless she was until Tsunade got a hold of her and started to spread her craziness. In fact, I have a theory: the crazier the ninja, the more powerful they are."

"True," Naruto acknowledged. "But I repeat: Anko? Isn't she a little young for you?"

"I'm not that old, you know," Kakashi replied, looking mildly affronted. "Anko's only two years younger than me and there's nothing wrong with a 22-year-old dating a 20-year-old."

"Whatever you say," Naruto didn't look convinced, but decided to let it drop. He found he really didn't need to know. "Any other life-altering changes I should know about?"

"Hm," Kakashi considered the question. He had already been in the past for a little over ten years now and a lot had changed in that time. Still, Naruto had said, life-altering, so… "Well, you're not an orphan, for one thing."

"What?" Naruto's eyes bulged out. "I have a mom?"

"Everybody has a mother, Naruto," Kakashi said condescendingly. "Honestly, it's like nobody gave you The Talk…"

Naruto glared up at him. "That reminds me: I don't think I will ever forgive you for leaving it to JIRAIYA to give me that. Seriously, if I hadn't sworn off revenge, I would totally kick your ass for that."

"Well it's a good thing you did, then, huh?" Kakashi asked cheerfully. "Anyway, to answer your real question, no, you mother is still dead. Just like before, she died shortly after childbirth because Madara showed up. And don't you DARE feel guilty for that, it wasn't you fault and God knows you've had more problems due to the Kyuubi over the years than anyone else."

"So…" Naruto said hesitantly. "Does that mean that…but how?"

"Your father is still alive, Naruto," Kakashi told him, smiling genuinely at the small boy.

"But what about the Shinigami? Didn't they need a sacrifice to seal the Kyuubi?" Naruto was confused.

"They did," Kakashi admitted, his grin fading. "But the Third Hokage sacrificed himself instead of the Fourth."

"You killed the Third Hokage?" Naruto asked incredulously.

"I did not kill him," Kakashi snapped.

"He didn't sacrifice himself in the original timeline, so you must have done something," Naruto pointed out rationally.

Kakashi sighed heavily. "You have to understand, the last time no one knew what your father was going to do, just that he had a plan. Minato knew that if anyone knew what he was going to do, they would end up stopping him. Almost immediately after you were born, he rushed out to stop the Kyuubi's advance and as such didn't really have any time to make provisions for you. He told Gamabunta to tell Jiraiya to spread the word that he wanted you to be a hero, but the Third derailed that plan by keeping the details of the seal and your parentage a secret."

"So what did you do?" Naruto pressed.

"I let it slip what Minato was planning and the Third decided he would rather be sacrificed to a Shinigami than come out of retirement," Kakashi explained.

Naruto stared at him. "You're joking."

"Well…it might have been a bit more complicated than that," Kakashi admitted. "He said that your father was what Konoha needed right now, that he was too old to take the reins again, that you were going to have a hard enough life as a Jinchuriki without being an orphan, too, and needed someone to take care of you…Minato didn't like it, but in the end he agreed."

"So my father's the Hokage, huh?" Naruto mused. He was saddened at the Third's loss, of course, but he'd come to terms with it five years ago, so it didn't hit him as hard as it would have had it been, say, the very-much-still-alive Tsunade. "Does that mean people have to be nicer to me?"

Kakashi snorted. "Kid, when your father said he wanted you to be seen as a hero, he meant it. His determination that your sacrifice be honored and the fact that your parentage was public knowledge as well as Minato's own hero status, boosted by his defeat of the Kyuubi…well, let's just say that you won't need to bring half of Konoha back to life to get your hero's welcome this time."

"Well that will make the next four years easier," Naruto decided. "You're going to have to tell me about my father, though. If he's been raising me all these years, I'll probably be expected to know a bit more about him than the scraps of information I managed to collect from you and Jiraiya. Hell, even Gamabunta was more talkative than you two were!"

"Of course I'll help you with any questions you may have," Kakashi promised. "I do kind of have a date to get back to, though, so…what are your plans as far as tonight goes?"

"What are yours?" Naruto shot back. "I don't think you went through all this effort to save Obito only to lose him now." A thought struck him. "Wait, so much else has changed, is there even going to be a coup?"

Kakashi nodded solemnly. "Your father is many things, Naruto, but he is not a miracle worker. The seeds of the Uchiha rebellion were sown since before Madara even left Konoha. And, of course, it doesn't help that your father actually saw Madara loitering around the day of the attack. He didn't recognize him, however, just knew that it was an Uchiha and as Madara is supposed to be dead…it gave people a lot of reason for suspicion. Unlike the Third, Minato refuses to let the Council bully him into going along with them but with Danzo having his little minions stalking the Uchiha and with Koharu and Homura's obvious distrust, the coup is supposed to occur sometime within the next week or so. Minato put off ordering it as long as he could, but in the end preventing another Great Shinobi War is more important than one clan. Itachi's to kill them tonight."

"What about Sasuke? I mean, we all know Itachi won't kill him, but he can't be left on his own again either, not after what happened last time. And what about Obito?" Naruto inquired.

"Obito's loyalty to Minato was never in question so the clan never told him of their plans for fear it would be discovered. He doesn't know about the coup and he definitely doesn't know about Itachi's mission. As such, Minato made clear this Obito is not to be harmed," Kakashi exposited. "I'm going to keep Obito away from the Compound tonight so he won't get in the way. He actually found his own place and is in the process of moving out anyway. And as for Sasuke…well, Obito will probably end up taking him in as he'll be his only remaining family member still in Konoha and that way the both of us will be able to keep an eye on him and hopefully stop him from going off the deep end as far as revenge goes."

"Then what in the world am I here for?" Naruto asked frustrated. "I didn't come all the way back here just to serve as Sasuke's 'moral support', which he won't need anyway once he comes back!" He smirked as an idea came to him. "Hey, whatever happened to Orochimaru? I know my…father wouldn't spare him out of sentiment like the Third did, so did he die, remain in Konoha, leave and join Akatsuki again? What?"

Kakashi frowned, unsure about the sudden change in topic. "When Orochimaru's treachery was discovered, your father fought him and managed to drive him from Konoha. He would have killed him, but Orochimaru used his summons to start attacking Konoha and by the time your father had brought out his own summons and turned his attention back to the battle, Orochimaru had managed to flee."

"I see," Naruto's smile was downright evil.

"What are you planning?" Kakashi asked reluctantly, nearly positive that he did not, in fact, want to know.

"I don't actually know Itachi very well, but if nothing else I feel sorry for him for having to actually willingly spend time with Madara," Naruto shuddered. "Total prick. And crazy as hell to boot. Besides, all things considered, he really didn't deserve what happened and Sasuke probably wouldn't have been so traumatized by the massacre if it weren't for the fact that it was Itachi's doing. And if he had a good reason to hate Orochimaru, he wouldn't have gone off train under him, gone off the deep end, and start working for Akatsuki."

"What are you saying?" Kakashi asked carefully.

"Let's blame everything on Orochimaru!" Naruto suggested brightly.

----

Later that night, Naruto was really starting to regret his plan. Of course, it was still his best chance of actually changing anything, but since the Sharingan could see through illusions and he'd need to fool Itachi or else face some very awkward questions, he'd had to actually transform himself. The only technique he had that did that was his Oiroke no Jutsu and its variations. So he had managed to transform himself into Orochimaru…as a girl. Granted, Orochimaru had been a girl before – in fact, he was fairly sure Orochimaru had been a girl when he'd killed the Third – but it was still weird.

Of course, he really did have better things to worry about than that, but it was better that reminding himself, again, that as much as he wanted to, he COULDN'T help the people he saw screaming for help as Itachi methodically cut them down. Finally, he was done. And just in time, too, as Naruto heard the distinct sounds of an angry mob coming up the street. He wondered briefly what Kakashi had come up with to get a lot of witnesses over to the Uchiha compound at three in the morning, but figured he'd probably find out soon enough.

Itachi's head snapped up, startled. The Uchiha district was rather isolated from the rest of Konoha – half the problem, really – and there was no reason for anyone, let alone a lot of anyones, to be here.

Right on cue, Naruto jumped down in front of Itachi just as the first of the crowd came into view. Sure enough, Kakashi was being chased by a large crowd of angry people most women.

"What-?" Itachi began.

"How dare you break into my house to peep at me!" one of them screamed.

"How do you always get me into these kinds of situations?" Obito lamented.

"I'm going to kill you, you bas-Orochimaru!" Anko gasped, stunned. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Ah, Anko, my dear, it's been too long," Naruto greeted her amiably, his eyes never leaving Itachi's. "How's the Curse Seal holding up? Any problems?"

"You have a lot of nerve coming back here after what you did," she growled.

"Yes, yes, I get that you're upset. We'll settle this later. Right now, I'm here for one reason and one reason alone!" Naruto exclaimed.

"And that is?" Itachi asked quietly, dropping into a defensive stance. Naruto marvelled at the fact that Itachi was so quick to defend the village that had asked him to kill 318 of his family members not two minutes before - and his best friend before that to gain the necessary power.

"The Sharingan, of course," Naruto explained patiently. "With that, I could learn any jutsu…at any time…with very little effort on my part. Of course, those pitiful fools had to charge at me, trying to arrest me for 'treason' or some other such nonsense and so I killed them all. No matter, though. I'm sure your eyes will more than suffice."

"You killed the Uchiha?" Kakashi asked, sounding horrified. "You're a monster!"

"I am above such plebian labels," Naruto sniffed. He had to give Itachi props: aside from a slight widening of the eyes, the Uchiha gave no indication that he was as confused as the rest of them, if not more so, because he knew what had actually happened to his clan and knew that Kakashi knew as well. Now, Naruto didn't actually really remember what Orochimaru used to fight, other than dead people and summons, but since he was supposed to be after every jutsu out there, he figured that gave him some leeway. He figured he might as well start with the Earth Clone Technique he was fairly sure he'd seen Orochimaru use and go from there.

After fighting Itachi for a few minutes – and thirteen or not, the boy was good – the crowd snapped out of their stupor, remembered that most of them were ninja, and started attacking Naruto as well.

"I'm sorry I'm late, I-" Naruto heard Sasuke's slightly breathless voice from the back of the crowd. "What's going on?"

"What's this? ANOTHER Uchiha?" Naruto asked, sounding positively delighted. "I was so afraid that I had managed to kill all of them so this boy would be my only option as a host, but now I see that there is a spare! How wonderful. This is getting a little crowded, so I'll take my leave now, but never forget…I, Orochimaru of the Sannin, WILL be back to steal your body, mark my words," he declared, before using the Body Flicker to make good his escape. Once he was far enough away, he transformed back into himself and headed back to the Compound.

"Hey guys, are we having a party?" Naruto asked brightly.

"No, my entire family was just murdered," Sasuke snapped at him. He looked ill. "And now the world's spinning…" With that, Sasuke fell to the ground in a faint.

"…I should probably go report this to the Hokage," Itachi said at last, no doubt wondering whether or not this strange new development meant he was still going to need to go into exile or not.

"Great idea, I'll come too," Kakashi nodded. "Obito, do you want to take Sasuke with you to your new place? He can't really stay here, all things considering..."

"Of course," Obito nodded, picking up the small child and heading off.

"Naruto, I'm not entirely sure why you're up this late, but you are to go STRAIGHT to bed, okay?" Kakashi said sternly.

"Oh, absolutely," Naruto agreed. And he would. Just as soon as he saw the end result of his meddling.

----

"Itachi. I didn't expect to see you again. Is it done?" Minato asked heavily as Itachi appeared at the Hokage Tower. He sounded sad. "Kakashi? What are you doing here?"

"I'm just tagging along," Kakashi shrugged.

"Yes," Itachi answered. "They're all dead but myself, Obito…and Sasuke."

"Your brother?" Minato asked.

"He's only eight. He has no idea," Itachi explained.

"I see. Well, I suppose he poses no threat then," Minato decided. "Were there any problems?"

"I'm…not sure," Itachi confessed.

Minato's gaze sharpened. "What do you mean you're not sure? What happened?"

"Right after I finished, Kakashi appeared, chased by a large crowd of irate women," Itachi explained.

Kakashi held up his hands in defense. "I had completely forgotten that was happening tonight," he lied.

Minato looked skeptical, but nodded. "Then what?"

"Then Orochimaru appeared, claimed he had killed everyone, and was planning on stealing my body. We fought, then he left after Sasuke showed up. Said now he had a 'spare' in case he couldn't possess me," Itachi explained, sounding mildly outraged at the thought of Orochimaru doing that to his little brother.

"Orochimaru?" Minato's eyebrows rose. "He took credit for killing everyone in front of a large crowd of witnesses? Are you sure it was him?"

Itachi coughed. "Well, actually it was a woman, but there was no illusion and Anko identified him as her former mentor."

"I see…" Minato trailed off. "But why would Orochimaru take the blame for this?"

"Whoever is said to have wiped out nearly the entire Uchiha clan is sure to gain a fearsome reputation," Kakashi suggested. "Maybe he was after that."

"Maybe," Minato allowed. "Still, I suppose we can deal with that later. For now, since Orochimaru has oh-so-generously offered himself up as a scapegoat, you are, of course, free to stay in Konoha."

"I'm sure Obito would be glad to have you," Kakashi offered. "After all, you're only thirteen and he'll probably want custody of Sasuke."

"Alright," Itachi said slowly, realizing full well just how lucky he'd gotten.

"Well, this isn't really how I pictured today ending," Minato confessed, leaning back on his chair. "Still…perhaps it's for the best."

Chapter Text

Sasuke, of course, was after revenge. Naruto had eventually helped him see that it really wasn't fair to take out his pain and desire for vengeance on everyone who happened to live in Konoha and that what's more it would make the Uchiha Massacre completely pointless. That didn't mean he didn't still hold three people responsible. Koharu, Homura, and Danzo needed to die. The Third had also been involved, of course, and had been the one to give the order in the end, but as he had been the most reluctant and had ended up protecting Sasuke throughout the years, Sasuke decided he could let that go. The facts that the Third was one of the strongest shinobi in the village and he was but a child and that the mysterious death of a Hokage would merit intense investigation had little bearing on his decision.

As much as Sasuke wanted to see his parents and various other family members again, he had long since come to realize that as long as the factions following the teachings of the Senju were in control, his clan would always be at odds with the government. With Madara having driven the Kyuubi to attack Konoha – which he certainly couldn't affect, being less than three months old at the time – things only got worse. If Itachi couldn't stop the attempted coup, then he certainly couldn't and it wasn't worth the chance to see his clan again to have to watch Itachi destroy them and abandon him again.

So Sasuke had elected to come back at eleven. His life after the massacre was really nothing worth repeating, but he wanted to come back a little before he graduated so he would have some time to refamiliarize himself with his past and change anything he didn't like. Not to mention brushing up on his taijutsu and working to get his body accustomed to his more interesting jutsu.

As Sasuke put the finishing touches on Danzo's suicide letter – he had realized that Homura and Koharu were too set in their ways and could not lead Konoha into the future but did not wish to be tried and executed for treason so he was going to die with them – and deactivated his Sharingan, he reflected that it really shouldn't have been that easy to poison the Council and future Rokudaime. Ah well, he was doing Konoha a favor, really, not only by taking out some dangerously old-fashioned and extremely influential leaders but by letting the village know that its security failed and hopefully inspiring them to correct that.

On his way back to his apartment, he bumped into the most annoying person he hadn't succeeded in killing.

"Hey Sasuke!" Naruto greeted him cheerfully. "What are you doing out this late at night?"

"What are you doing?" Sasuke replied.

"Midnight ramen run," Naruto explained. "I always forget to go during the day…"

"I see," Sasuke said. If it were anybody else that would have come across as completely ridiculously and obviously untrue, but since it was Naruto that really was one of the most likely explanations. "I'm headed home."

Naruto shot him a quizzical look. "You're heading the wrong way for that, aren't you? Unless you want to take the really scenic route…"

"Don't be ridiculous, my apartment is this way," Sasuke disagreed. And really, how would Naruto know anyway? And why was he being so friendly? Then again, perhaps it was just that he was actually answering the blond boy when when he had really been eleven, he would have just grunted, possibly said something belittling, and left.

"Not unless Obito kicked you out," Naruto replied. "And I probably would have heard about that."

"Who's Obito?" Sasuke asked automatically.

Naruto's eyes widened. "Who's Obito-? Sasuke, why do you hate Orochimaru?"

"Who said I hate Orochimaru?" Sasuke asked neutrally. "For that matter, who said I've even met him?"

A smile spread across Naruto's face. "Sasuke! You're back!"

"Back?" Sasuke repeated, feeling a little out of his depth.

"Yeah, you've finally decided to show up. Kakashi came back thirteen years ago and I came back three," Naruto explained. "Sakura still hasn't shown up yet, but Kakashi and I are betting that will happen next year when we make Genin."

"I see," Sasuke said. "So we're in the same timeline then?"

"Yeah, Kakashi and I were pretty surprised too. Fortunately, after a few weeks my alternate-timeline memories started coming in because when I first got back, I was confused as hell. With Kakashi having already been around for a decade, he started changing things left and right. For instance, did you know that when that Kumo ambassador tried to kidnap Hinata, Kakashi was on hand to incapacitate him without killing him so Neji's father wouldn't have to die?" Naruto asked.

"Why?" Sasuke wondered.

Naruto shrugged. "Because he knew it was coming, I guess. Also, I get the feeling he kind of got tired listening to Gai complain about how fatalistic Neji was all the time before I used my Therapy Jutsu on him and as most of his change followed Hinata's dad explaining what really happened that day, he figured that incident was the root cause of Neji's complex."

"So he did it because Neji's pain was annoying him?" Sasuke summarized.

"Basically," Naruto agreed. "But hey, that's why I ended up coming back. Not because of Neji, but because you're sulking was really annoying and I didn't realize that you'd be following me here."

"I did NOT sulk," Sasuke told him.

Naruto snorted. "Keep telling yourself that, Sasuke."

"And there's no such thing as 'Therapy Jutsu'," Sasuke reminded him.

"Actually, I think you'll find that there is," Naruto corrected. "Apparently Obito is good at that too and Kakashi passed along my name for it, so over the last thirteen years it's become quite well-known. Granted, I'm not the originator anymore, but since its official, I feel vindicated anyway."

"You would. So besides that, what's changed? Who's Obito, why am I supposed to hate Orochimaru, and what did you do?" Sasuke fired off.

"Obito is your cousin," Naruto began.

Sasuke blinked. "I have relatives? But the massacre-"

"Obito originally died two years or so before we were born. He was on Kakashi's team and, as such, he was on my father's team," Naruto continued. "When he died, he gave his Sharingan to Kakashi. Kakashi kind of…obsessed, as you probably noticed, and came back to save him. Since he was on my father's team, your family realized he had quite a bit of loyalty to Konoha and didn't tell him about the coup and Kakashi was supposed to keep him out of the compound that night."

"I have relatives," Sasuke repeated, trying to grasp this basic fact. "Or a relative. Whatever."

"As for Orochimaru…well, I told you that I didn't want to deal with you sulking, right?" Naruto asked. "I came back to the day of the massacre so I could 'be there for you' afterwards or whatever so you'd hopefully grow up less emo. I ran into Kakashi and he filled me in on what had been going on. Since Obito would probably end up taking you in as you were kind of lacking in family – which he did – I decided I didn't want my trip to be worthless and so we ended up blaming everything on Orochimaru."

"Blaming what on Orochimaru?" Sasuke asked, confused.

Naruto's grin widened. "The massacre."

"You…" Sasuke trailed off. "You blamed the Uchiha Massacre on Orochimaru? How? Why? And what happened to Itachi, then?"

"I used my Oiroke no Jutsu to turn myself into girl Orochimaru," Naruto began. Seeing Sasuke cringe, he continued, "I know, I know, gross, right? Had to be done, though. Trying to explain why I was framing Orochimaru might have lead to some awkward questions and the Sharingan can see through illusions, so I had no other choice. As for the why…well, if it hadn't been for his stupid curse seal than you wouldn't have been so much moodier and crazier than normal and if it hadn't been for him killing the Third, then your brother wouldn't have come back to protect you and wound up making you catatonic. Not to mention that he was the one who offered you a place outside of Konoha to begin with. The way I see it, if it hadn't been for him you wouldn't have left."

"It was still my choice," Sasuke felt obligated to point out.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "You're my best friend and he was a crazy pedophile. Besides, was I supposed to blame you for what happened?"

"I suppose not," Sasuke conceded. "As hard to believe as a thirteen-year-old prodigy wiping out the clan might have been, an eight-year-old above-average academy student would have been far more ridiculous. Not to mention that Itachi would have found a way to take responsibility. And speaking of him, what happened? If people think Orochimaru is responsible, what happened to him?"

"After he killed the clan, I had Kakashi round up a large crowd of witnesses – mostly women, I get the feeling he did something perverted but he still won't tell me what – and they chased him to the Uchiha district where I claimed I had killed them all, attacked your brother, mentioned how much I wanted a Sharingan and that I would be back for either your eyes or Itachi's, and left," Naruto summarized. "Since everyone thought Orochimaru was responsible and your brother had heroically managed to fend him off, there was no need for him to leave so he lives with you, Obito, and Rin. He's still really stoic whenever you don't happen to be in the room and doesn't like talking about the Uchiha or the massacre, but it's not nearly as bad as before."

Sasuke stared at Naruto. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I think I love you."

Naruto laughed. "I won't, don't worry, but Kiba might. He couldn't understand why I was so determined to bring you back after you were being such a moron, so he eventually decided I was in love with you."

Sasuke twitched. " I never liked Kiba. When you two got together, you were five times as bad."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Naruto said, not looking sorry at all. "Especially as you're going to be seeing a lot more of him as your brother's dating his sister."

"…What was that?" Sasuke asked, sure he'd misheard the other boy.

"Your brother is dating Kiba's sister, Hana," Naruto said again.

"Why?" Sasuke demanded.

Naruto shrugged. "Who knows how love works? Obito married his other teammate, Rin, and Kakashi's dating Anko."

"Anko?" Sasuke narrowed his eyes, trying to remember her. "Wait, wasn't she that insane proctor for the second stage of the Chuunin Exams?"

"Yep," Naruto beamed. "He didn't want to propose until either you or Sakura got here and he'll actually get married once the Team is back together. Anko kind of scares me, but she's pretty awesome. She can make a weapon out of anything. You two get on quite well."

"What could we possible have in common?" Sasuke honestly couldn't think of anything. "And why we even know each other?"

"Well, she's your guardian's best friend's girlfriend and they double date a lot. Anko was also Orochimaru's apprentice that he gave a curesd seal to and abandoned. You two often have long in-depth conversations about how much you hate him and plot out various revenge scenarios," Naruto offered. "And trust me when I say that those greatly disturb everyone else."

"Hm," Sasuke considered that. "Well, it's true that I haven't forgiven Orochimaru for not only presuming to take my body but for interrupting my fight with Itachi and driving him to death by exhaustion that much faster, so I suppose I can work with that."

Naruto groaned. "Of COURSE you can. Seriously, is it even possible for you to be happy without having someone you need to seek revenge on?"

"I don't know," Sasuke confessed. "But why mess with success?"

"Because it's a pain in the ass for the rest of us," Naruto complained. "Speaking of, why did you decide to come back? It had something to do with vengeance, right?"

"But of course," Sasuke looked surprised that Naruto even had to ask. "Even if reluctantly admitted that maybe the citizens of Konoha deserve peace after the massacre, the Council and Danzo do not."

"You…killed them?" Naruto was shocked.

"They were meeting to discuss Konoha policy, I poisoned their tea, then used the Sharingan to fake a suicide note from Danzo," Sasuke explained.

"For the love of God, Sasuke, do you know how people are going to react to that? You can't just go around killing village elders every time you feel like it!" Naruto burst out.

"I just did," Sasuke pointed out. "But no worries, I feel justice has been served by Konoha as far as the Massacre goes, so I see no reason to go after any other elders or the Hokage. Madara, however..."

"Good," Naruto said. "Because if you went after my dad than I might need to rethink that 'no revenge' thing."

"You're dad?" Sasuke was surprised. "Isn't he dead?"

"Kakashi meddled and so the Third sealed the Kyuubi," Naruto explained.

"Kakashi killed the Third?" Sasuke couldn't believe it.

Naruto smiled. "That's what I said, too. He claims the Sandaime made his own choices. Speaking of people making their own choices, like it or not, your brother made his as well. Are you sure you're going to be okay facing him again? Because remember, you're not supposed to know that he's the one who killed your clan and neither am I. Only my father, Kakashi, and Jiraiya are supposed to know since you killed the unholy alliance."

"The what?" Sasuke blinked.

"That's Kakashi and my codename for the Council and Danzo," Naruto explained. "Since they always disagree with Dad and always side with each other."

"I think I'll be okay," Sasuke decided. "Right or wrong, I forgave Itachi after I found out that Konoha had ordered him to do it so as long as I don't slip up and mention that I know it was him, I should be good. I don't see why we'd talk about the massacre even if I did know, because I still don't feel that they deserved to die so it would just end up being very awkward."

"That's probably for the best," Naruto agreed. "Madara's really good at framing his explanations so you'll immediately change long-held beliefs over the course of a conversation, huh? It's kind of like my Therapy Jutsu, but the opposite. Giving-People-Issues Jutsu? That's not nearly as catchy..."

"Yeah, Madara was pretty good at that," Sasuke nodded. "Crazy as hell though. Seriously, the moon?"

"I know," Naruto said. "It's kind of a wonder someone that insane managed to keep it together long enough to convince so many other people to follow him."

"Well, most of those people were also insane," Sasuke pointed out.

"True," Naruto conceded. "So do you have any more questions for me or do you want to head back?"

"What's our relationship supposed to be like?" Sasuke inquired, honestly curious. He was sure that Naruto had tried to 'make friends' with his younger self but he was equally certain that little him wouldn't be very receptive.

"The same as it always was, I guess," Naruto decided. "In this timeline, I always knew Kakashi as he was my father's student and nostalgic and after I got back, I tagged along when he hung out with Obito and so eventually you were forced to admit we were friends. We probably will never act like normal friends, but then neither do Ino and Sakura and they manage to be functional."

"That would depend upon your definition of 'functional'," Sasuke said dryly. "So…are you planning on doing anything about the fact that I killed them?"

Naruto sighed. "I do not approve, obviously, especially as this was murder, no other way of looking at it. We'll have to tell Kakashi, obviously, but other than that…well, I suppose I'm just glad you stuck to the agreement we made about not trying to destroy Konoha anymore."

"Thank you," Sasuke said sincerely. Then a thought struck him, "Hey, since I won't be getting new memories for a few more weeks, what's this cousin of mine like, anyway?"

"Well, he's a lot like me, for one," Naruto answered.

"You know, on the other hand, maybe I should turn myself in. It wouldn't do to let people panic unnecessarily…"

----

When the two boys reached the strange house that Naruto swore he lived in, he found Kakashi sitting at the table with his brother and an older Uchiha who he assumed was Obito.

"Where have you guys been?" Obito asked, not even bothering to wonder why Naruto was with Sasuke. Apparently they really were friends.

"I was on a midnight ramen run when I ran into Sasuke training," Naruto lied. "I made him come with me but we got held up when he burned his mouth and swore vengeance."

"I see," Obito said. Apparently that wasn't a novel occurrence.

"Oh, Kakashi?" Naruto asked. "Sasuke finally decided to show up."

"Did he?" Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "You certainly took your time, didn't you?"

"Now you have no excuse not to propose," Naruto informed him.

"I'll get around to it…" Kakashi insisted.

"Hi, Nii-san," Sasuke said, unsure of really what else to say. After all, the last time they had been on anything resembling good terms had been the day before the massacre, but he'd been so strained then. Probably trying to decide whether or not he could actually bring himself to kill his little brother.

Itachi smiled at him. "Swearing vengeance again, Sasuke? One of these days that's going to get you in trouble."

"Don't I know it," Sasuke muttered. "Still, I'm sure I can handle it. And if not you'll bail me out, right?"

"Always," Itachi promised.

"So what did he do?" Kakashi asked Naruto quietly.

"Wiped out the unholy alliance," Naruto replied.

Kakashi blinked. "That's all?"

"I know, I was surprised too," Naruto confided.

"I can't even say that that's a bad thing, given what we know Danzo's capable of and how utterly unhelpful the Council always was," Kakashi admitted. "I wonder who Minato will appoint to replace them."

"Well, he did say that he was looking for a way to get baa-chan to come back for more than her biannual hospital inspections," Naruto pointed out. "As for the other one, I don't know. Jiraiya would seem like the obvious choice, but his spy network is kind of personally held together by him, so…"

"Nara Shikaku would be a good pick," Kakashi mused. "Seeing as how he's probably the smartest person in the village and a tactical genius as well."

"So it looks like Sasuke's revenge-seeking tendencies actually had a positive outcome this time," Naruto said, sounding almost awed.

"Yes, but we must never, ever tell him this. Ever. If he's bad as far as that goes now, just imagine how bad it would be if he had ENCOURAGEMENT…"

Chapter Text

Sakura wasn't even really sure she wanted to go back in the first place. Sure there had been some rough spots in her life – notably the period when Sasuke was in Oto, Naruto was travelling with Jiraiya, and Kakashi was AWOL – but for the most part things had worked out in the end. The odds of Sasuke actually coming back after everything were astronomical enough as it was but combined with Tsunade recovering, Konoha enduring, and Naruto surviving…it was a miracle, plain and simple, and she didn't want to go back to try and 'fix' things and inadvertently screw anything up. Just the same, Kakashi, Naruto, and – to a lesser extent – Sasuke seemed so dead set on the idea that she couldn't help but go along with it. After all, all three of them were going to disappear from her world and she'd be damned if she'd be left behind again.

Her life before graduating from the Academy had only been remarkable in its simplicity. In a group where chakra deformations, demon possessions, seal enslavements, clan pressures, family massacres, and revenge-seeking were the norm, her mundane life with her family and friends made her a bit of an oddity. After all, she'd been willing to throw away her best friend once over a silly little crush on a barely pubescent boy. Thankfully, she'd realized just how stupid that was and…well, she'd need to fix that immediately. If she were going to go back at all, reliving her days of being bullied was really kind of pointless. She wouldn't really have a lot of chakra if she went back before becoming Tsunade's apprentice and she'd need to do some serious training to get her taijutsu back up to her usual levels, but Sasuke, Naruto, and Kakashi had all moved on by the time she had sought out the Godaime, so going back to then would be like not bothering to go back at all.

Sakura still didn't understand what exactly had gone down as far as the massacre was concerned and doubted that anyone would ever really know the true story as Itachi had died, Danzo and the Council claimed ignorance, and Madara was practically a pathological liar. She couldn't do anything there. All of Kakashi's issues seemed to stem from back before she was even born and he would have no reason to be interested in her even if there was something there. Naruto…Naruto had been neglected his whole life, but he'd managed to cope well enough that waiting until she graduated wouldn't really do any harm.

Sakura woke up early the day after the graduation exam and when she absently ran her fingers through her tangled hair, she was surprised at how long it was. She let a smile cross her face as she remembered Ino telling everyone that 'Sasuke-kun' only liked girls with long hair right after she'd decided to grow hers out. Sakura, like everyone else, had believed her, which was funny looking back on it because as far as she knew Sasuke's two biggest requirements for a girl he could potentially be interested in were not being useless or a fangirl. Which at the time, among the girls they knew, basically meant…Tenten. Of course, Sasuke barely knew her and she was obviously going to end up with Neji so it's not like that would have worked out even if Sasuke hadn't up and left.

Sakura searched around her room until she found a kunai half-hidden under her bed. Just like before, she was a Kunoichi reborn and wanted to look the part. She went to the bathroom and, holding her hair about the trash can, mimicked her initial change from rather sheltered little girl to determined ninja-in-training. After evening out the ends a bit, she eyed her reflection. Not bad. She looked a lot more like she remembered now, even if she was younger. Longer hair had always symbolized her fangirl days to her and she was glad to be rid of it. Unfortunately, her wardrobe left much to be desired as the long dresses she had worn for most of her time as a genin really weren't the most practical for the life of a shinobi. Still, it was only the day of the initial team meeting and as the 'survival training' would be the day after, she figured it would be fine if she went and bought some shorts after she was dismissed for the day.

Sakura's mother stared at her when she went down to the kitchen.

"What's for breakfast?" she asked brightly. "I'm starving."

"I thought you were on a diet?" her dad asked without looking up from his meal.

"I was," Sakura admitted, feeling a little embarrassed at her childhood silliness. "But then I realized that I'm going to need energy if I'm going to be a Kunoichi and all the exercise I'm sure to get will more than burn off any unwanted calories."

"What happened to your hair, Sakura?" her mother asked as she placed her breakfast in front of her.

"I cut it," Sakura said simply. It seemed kind of obvious.

"I can see that. But…why?" her mother pressed.

Sakura shrugged. "Well, today I meet my genin team and start my life as a Kunoichi. As such, I might as well and least try and act the part. Having my hair down is just begging someone to try and immobilize me by grabbing it, so I figured I could either cut it or wear my hair in a ponytail and look like I'm copying Ino. And that's just not going to happen."

Sakura's father glanced up at her. "It looks nice," he said approvingly. "I'm glad you've decided to take being a ninja more seriously. It's a very dangerous line of work, after all, and we don't want you to get hurt."

As Sakura's parents were civilians, they really had no idea just how dangerous it could be and if Sakura had it her way, they never would. Last time it had taken Pein's total annihilation of Konoha before they had had idea of the kinds of things she had routinely gone up against. "Don't worry," she assured them. "I'm sure our instructor will be more than capable." Even if he was lazy. And a pervert. And she never really did understand why h e wore a mask all the time. Granted, she was so used to seeing him with it that when she had seen him without it it had freaked her out, but she'd seen his genin picture and he'd been wearing one then so when had he started? And why? "I will need to go shopping when I get back to get some shorts and things to wear that won't get in the way."

"But you look so cute in that dress!" her mother protested.

Sakura rolled her eyes. "I'm sure I can look cute in more practical clothing, mom, but even if I don't I'm not there to be eye candy." Not this time.

----

Sakura was hurrying towards the Academy, deep in thought, when she crashed into someone. "I'm sorry," she said automatically.

"Don't worry about it," Itachi assured her with a smile. "It was an accident." Wait…what?

"I-I-Itachi?" Sakura shrieked.

"Yes, do I know you?" he asked, tilting his head quizzically.

"I…what…how…why are you here?" Sakura demanded, not answering the question. Fortunately, he was not wearing his usual Akatsuki cloak or she probably would have passed out from shock. It was close, though.

"I am escorting Kakashi to the Academy as Anko and Obito are both on a mission and if left to his own devices, Kakashi would probably show up some time this afternoon," Itachi explained.

Sakura managed to tear her eyes from Itachi's – they were black, not Sharingan red, which was another surprise – and saw that not only was Kakashi standing behind Itachi, but Sasuke and Naruto were too. All three members of her future team were looking at her curiously. "Anko?"

"My fiancé," Kakashi explained.

"You're getting MARRIED?" Okay, now that was almost stranger than Itachi's presence.

"Right after the Chuunin Exams," Kakashi confirmed.

"Hey Sakura-chan," Naruto said suddenly. "Do you think Shikamaru is more likely to end up with Temari or Ino?"

"Temari, for sure," Sakura replied automatically. "She's in Konoha far too often for it just to be 'diplomatic' and besides, I think Ino's got a thing for Sai." Suddenly, she realized where she was or rather when and stammered out, "I-I mean-"

"Welcome to the party," Kakashi greeted her, looking like he was smiling behind his mask. "Sasuke, you owe Naruto and I 500 Ryo each."

"I know," Sasuke grumbled, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the stated sum before shoving it towards the winners of whatever little bet they had going. "Damn it, did she have to be so predictable?"

"You're the one who bet against it," Kakashi pointed out.

"Well, I thought 'any day but today' was pretty good odds," Sasuke said defensively.

"Maybe if you hadn't run off to go be a moron then you'd know Sakura-chan better," Naruto told him.

"…What the hell is going on?" Sakura asked, feeling more confused by the second.

"Don't worry," Itachi assured her, or tried to. Seeing as how he was SUPPOSED to be a missing-nin, it wasn't very reassuring. Granted, he apparently was never actually evil, but it was still unsettling. "They get like that a lot; it's like they're in their own little world."

"We'll explain it soon enough, Sakura-chan," Naruto promised.

Frowning slightly but knowing that she'd get the chance to interrogate them soon enough, Sakura followed them into the building.

Iruka was standing in front of the class, trying to get them to quiet down, which was no easy feat considering they were all so excited to have finally passed. Well, kind of passed. "Okay, so everyone's here except…Oh dear God, what are you doing here Kakashi?" he demanded.

Kakashi raised his eyebrows. And wait…was that TWO eyes, he had? What happened to his Sharingan? What in the world was going on here? Since when did Sasuke and Naruto act like they were friends and even know Kakashi at all? Had she accidentally entered an alternate dimension? "I'm supposed to test a team today. You should probably know that, Iruka, seeing as you were part of the team that assigned me."

" 'Assigned' you?" Iruka snorted. "You DEMANDED your team and wouldn't take no for an answer."

"Let's not quibble over semantics," Kakashi said airily.

"And I was referring to the fact that you're only five minutes late," Iruka said, still looking shocked at this fact.

Sakura looked up at the clock. It was true. Wow. Seeing as how Kakashi always used to joke about how the only reason he'd lived as long as he had was because he kept arriving late for Death and so it got tired of waiting for him and just left, this really was quite remarkable.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kakashi lied.

"I confiscated his…books and threatened to give them to Anko if he didn't show up," Itachi explained.

"You're a miracle worker, Itachi," Iruka said, shaking his head in amazement. Sakura was also amazed. Why in the world weren't people freaking out or at least slightly surprised to see Itachi here?

"I have to go," Itachi said, poking his brother in the forehead. "Be good and don't fail."

"Yeah, yeah…" Sasuke grumbled, rubbing his forehead.

Sakura watched teams One through Six get assigned. The Jounin, she noted, appeared to be simply going through the motions. None of the kids were from any ninja clans and she didn't remember ever seeing any of the among the ranks of the Konoha shinobi. Clearly, they weren't expected to be one of the three teams that passed. Teams Ten and Eight, however, were entirely made up of representatives of strong shinobi clans and the recreating of the Ino-Shika-Cho team was a little suspect. Sasuke and she represented the best in the class and the best Kunoichi, so that probably wasn't coincidental either. Wow, that was kind of brutal, huh? All those kids wasting years in the Academy and they'd never even get a chance to really graduate unless there were a lack of clan kids in a class.

"Team Seven will be Haruno Sakura, Uchiha Sasuke, and Namikaze Naruto and it will be led by Hatake Kakashi," Iruka announced, causing Sakura to narrow her eyes in confusion once more. NAMIKAZE Naruto? Sure, the truth of Naruto's parentage had eventually come out, but that was years in the future. Why was this common knowledge now? If she ever saw her Kakashi again, she was going to kill him for giving her a faulty jutsu. Sure she'd ended up in the past, but she'd meant to go back to HER past, not an alternate universe's.

----

"Well, let's begin by introducing yourselves," Kakashi suggested once they'd reached their meeting spot. "We all know who we are already, but it wouldn't do to start the team off on the wrong foot this time, now would it? Let's go with likes, dislikes, dreams for the futures, and what you changed when you went back in time."

"Went back in time?" Sakura repeated blankly. Then it clicked. "We ended up in the same timeline? And I'm the last to come back? And that's why nothing makes any sense?"

"It's your own fault for choosing not to come back until the last possible moment," Sasuke told her bluntly.

"If it weren't for the fact you all were apparently changing things every time you turned around, there would have been no need to go back further," Sakura defended herself.

"Don't worry, Sakura-chan," Naruto grinned at her. "In a few weeks, your memories of this timeline will come back in. I don't think things should be that different with you as our changes only really affected you peripherally. Oh, I did make Sasuke declare that he could never be with anyone who would throw away their friends over him, so you and Ino are still speaking, but really that's probably the biggest difference for you personally…"

"You did that?" Sakura couldn't help but smile. "Thank you. I was wondering how I could fix that."

"Well, that and the fact that since I already knew everything and Sasuke's just as competitive as I am, we're tied for best in the class and the only reason we managed to avoid graduating early is by failing to show up to take the final exam a few times," Naruto said, almost as an afterthought. "That's why Kakashi had to fight so hard to get the three of us: without me being the dead last to balance you two out, people were saying our team was stacked. Fortunately, he has an in with the Hokage."

"Since I was the first to come back, I'll go first," Kakashi announced. "My name is Hatake Kakashi. I like masks, Jiraiya's books, and being late. I dislike it when someone uses one of the first two to against me, especially if it's to make me show up somewhere on time. My dream for the future is to get you three to pass the Chuunin Exams on your first try as that hasn't happened since the Sannin and when I got back 14 years ago, I saved the life of my best friend, Uchiha Obito, so I did not receive his Sharingan. Later on, my other teammate Rin also survived and I let the Sandaime know that Minato-Sensei was planning on sacrificing himself to seal the Kyuubi so he decided to sacrifice himself instead."

"You killed the Third?" Sakura asked, horrified.

Sasuke and Naruto exchanged smirks and held their hands out to Kakashi. Grumbling, the Jounin handed over some money. "For the last time, I did not kill the Third! He made his own choices and he should be remembered as a hero not my victim."

"Well Kakashi," Naruto began. "I can see your point of view, I really can, but seeing as how Sakura, Sasuke, and I all had the EXACT same reaction, I'd say you're outvoted. You killed the Third."

Kakashi looked like he wanted to strangle the blond, but managed to restrain himself. "Since you were the second to rerturn, why don't you go next, Naruto?"

"Alright," Naruto said agreeably. "My name is Namikaze Naruto since my father's still alive and Hokage, I like ramen and having Therapy Jutsu be considered a legitimate shinobi tool and I dislike revenge and idiots who chase after it at the expense of everything else. My dream for the future is, of course, to be Hokage and also to be able to help all of my old-and-future friends. When I came back, I impersonated Orochimaru and claimed credit for the Uchiha massacre in front of a large crowd of witnesses Kakashi had managed to round up, causing Sasuke to become obsessed with revenge on the snake pedophile until he came back."

"So that's why Itachi's here?" Sakura asked. "And no one's running away panicked?"

"Yep," Naruto confirmed. "He and Sasuke live with Obito and his wife Rin, who Kakashi and Minato kept out of the loop as far as the whole massacre thing went."

"My name is Uchiha Sasuke," Sasuke went next. "I like revenge, getting stronger, and tomatoes. I dislike sweet things, fangirls, and people who 'forget' to tell me that Tsunade found a way to reverse the corrosive damage the Mangekyou causes with a relatively simple jutsu you perform within a few seconds of using it and my dream is to get revenge on everyone I feel has wronged me in any way including, but not limited to, Orochimaru, Kabuto, and Madara."

"To be fair," Kakashi said, "we were concerned you would use it in front of someone when you're not even supposed to have it yet and we didn't want you to go off the rails seeking vengeance on insanely powerful shinobi before you'd even graduated."

"Hn. Our first mission outside of Konoha Naruto's going to have a 'near-death experience.' I don't want to have to hide the Mangekyou now that there's really no downside to using it," Sasuke said flatly.

"As long as it's heroic," Naruto agreed. "Maybe I can sacrifice myself to save you. That would put us both in a good light."

"No mention of Danzo or the Council?" Sakura asked, intrigued. "Half the reason you wanted to destroy Konoha was because you wanted to kill them. Have you gotten over it?" she asked, sounding skeptical.

Naruto snorted. "Sasuke? Get over something? That's funny. He wasn't finished, you know."

Sasuke glared at Naruto. "When I got back last year, I poisoned the Danzo and the Council and forged a suicide note from Danzo claiming he'd killed the Council for the good of the village. Given that the new Council, Nara Shikaku and Tsunade, aren't evil and being a Council member forced Tsunade to stay in Konoha and figure out how to deal with the Mangekyou Sharingan, I stand by Danzo's statement and you will never convince me otherwise."

"Danzo's statement?" Naruto repeated. "You wrote the note!"

"Which might explain why I agree with it," Sasuke noted.

"I see," Sakura said, trying to assimilate all the information. Her teammates had certainly been busy. She couldn't wait until her memories returned so she could try and make sense of all of this. "My name is Haruno Sakura. I like people who believe in and inspire others and ALSO dislike revenge-obsessed idiots who throw everything away in its pursuit. My dream is to become the best medic-nin Konoha has ever seen and to never be left behind again. Since arriving this morning I…well, I got a haircut and plan on getting a more appropriate wardrobe for tomorrow."

"That's it?" Sasuke asked incredulously. At Sakura's sheepish nod, he snorted. "So even though you came back in time for the sole purpose of not being useless, when it came to making changes you still ended up being pretty useless."

"I've only been back for a few hours; give me a break!" Sakura snapped.

"I saved Obito's life within an hour of being back," Kakashi told her.

"By the time I was back for as long as you were, I had framed Orochimaru for the Uchiha massacre," Naruto added.

"By the time I was back for twenty minutes, I had wiped out three village elders," Sasuke pointed out.

Sakura crossed her arms, annoyed. "I really hate you guys sometimes, you know that?"

----

The next day when Sakura stepped out of her house to head towards the training fields where the bell test was going to take place, she aw Naruto leaning against a tree.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"I'm not," Naruto replied.

"Pardon?" Sakura asked.

"I'm not here. I'm at Ichiraku's ramen stand," Naruto explained.

"Are you sure?" Sakura asked. "Because it looks like you're here."

"I'm a clone," Naruto explained. Or rather, his clone did. "I figured Kakashi wouldn't show up anytime soon, so Sasuke and I decided to stake his house out. Sure enough, he was planning on arriving six hours after we were supposed to meet, so we decided to go to Ichiraku's and I figured if we just left you hanging for six hours, you'd probably kill us. Especially me."

"Damn straight I would," Sakura agreed. "To Ichiraku's it is."

----

Six hours later, the finally reunited Team Seven made their way back to their training grounds for their 'final exam.' Of course, they knew Kakashi would pass them either way – and Naruto's dad, who was apparently still Hokage, was sure to be pissed if his son was failed by his former student – but it would still be nice to get those damn bells for once. Especially as Sakura was sure Kakashi had made sure to be completely up-to-date on Jiraiya's novels so Naruto couldn't threaten to spoil them and have get the bells that way like last time.

"You know the drill," Kakashi said, sounding bored. "I have two bells you need to get them before noon or you suck." He reached down to pat the bells attached to his belt only to realize they weren't there. "What the-? Where are they?"

"You mean THESE bells?" Sakura asked innocently, holding up the two bells.

"How'd you get those?" Kakashi demanded.

"I stole them during brunch," Sakura explained.

"The test hadn't started yet, Sakura," Kakashi reminded her.

"In the shinobi world playing fair won't get you very far," Sakura countered. "And I DID get them before noon. And what's more, I'm going to give them to my teammates as I don't want them to fail." With that, she placed on in Naruto's hand and the other in Sasuke's.

Kakashi groaned. "You know, if you had just told us you had them at the restaurant, we wouldn't have had to come all the way out here…fine, whatever, pass. I'm sure you're all shocked."

"How's THAT for useless?" Sakura asked triumphantly.

Chapter Text

"Team Seven," Minato greeted them as they stood in front of him to receive their next mission. "You have managed to fail every single D-Rank mission we have. What do you have to say for yourself?"

"That takes talent?" Naruto volunteered.

"Naruto," Minato said sternly.

"What? Have you ever tried to fail at some of those?" Naruto shot back.

"How did we manage to fail at finding Tora?" Sakura asked. "Since we did, in fact, find Tora."

"That cat hasn't been the same since you brought it back and, from what I hear, practically has a panic attack every time it spots one of you," Minato pointed out.

"That's very strange," Sasuke said neutrally.

"I'm sure it is. You can't babysit because the children invariably insist on throwing stick 'kunai' at the people around them for 'moving target practice.' You can't go shopping in a neighboring village because you compete to see who can get the cheapest deals and so end up haggling all day. You can't help with farming because Naruto's clones eat all the food. You can't help paint fences or buildings because that would start another paint war," Minato recited. "Kakashi, shouldn't you be, I don't know, trying to get them to pass? They currently hold the record for most D-ranks failed ever."

Kakashi beamed. "I knew they had it in them. Besides, if you think about it, it really takes far more effort and creativity to manage to fail so many consecutive D-rank missions."

Minato sighed. "But there aren't actually any more D-rank missions they are eligible for."

"Then I guess that means it's time to graduate to C-rank missions," Kakashi said brightly.

"Failing C-rank missions are a bit more serious than failing D-ranks," Minato told them seriously. "As their Jounin instructor, you have the right to request they move up to C-ranks, but I need to know that you all will take these seriously."

Sakura nodded. "Absolutely."

"Hn," Sasuke grunted in agreement.

"Dibs on any escort missions to Wave," Naruto called.

Minato blinked. "It just so happens that there is an escort mission to the Land of Waves. Naruto, have you been sneaking looks at the mission scrolls again?"

"…No," Naruto denied, sounding far too innocent to be believed.

"Kakashi?" Minato asked.

"We'll take it," Kakashi replied.

"Alright, I'll just let Tazuna know," Minato said, writing their Team down on the mission roster and calling in the old bridge builder.

"What's this?" Tazuna asked, taking a swig of his bottle. "They're all just a bunch of super brats. Especially the short one with the stupid face."

"That's my son, you know," Minato informed him, sounding amused.

"I mean, I feel confident that Konoha will be able to provide me with a competent force to protect me on my journey home," Tazuna immediately backtracked.

Naruto smirked at him. "Oh, we'll definitely be able to protect you from any run-of-the-mill bandits you're likely to encounter because that is well within our qualifications."

"Great…" Tazuna said, looking a little nervous.

"Alright guys, let's meet at the Village Gate at nine tomorrow," Kakashi ordered.

"I'll make sure to let Anko know," Minato assured the three Genin.

----

"So tomorrow's your first day out of Konoha with your brats," Anko mused aloud when Kakashi arrived back at their apartment later that day.

"How did you know?" Kakashi asked, a little surprised.

"Minato called me in and asked me to make sure you'd be there on time," she explained. "Honestly, it's like every time you're late for something, they hold Obito or I personally responsible. If I knew I'd be your personal alarm clock, I never would have agreed to go out with you…"

"But now you're stuck with me," Kakashi said smugly.

"It's the mask," Anko insisted. "I love being the only one to know what you look like without it."

"Even more so since you started giving everyone who asked a different description," Kakashi concurred. "Although the current most popular theory is that I have a 'bad third-degree sunburn' that I hide from shame, which is completely ridiculous as it's kind of hard to get a sunburn on your face when it's always covered by a mask, but…"

"If they would stop asking me, I'd stop giving them false information," Anko said defiantly, crossing her arms. "You must be happy, huh? Your dream team finally getting a chance to prove themselves?"

"Oh, I don't know," Kakashi replied. "Watching them plot new ways to fail all the D-rank missions they were given was quite entertaining."

"I'll bet. Why were you so adamant about having those three, anyway?" Anko asked him. "I mean, Naruto and Sasuke I can understand because of Minato and Obito, but what about pinky? What's her name again?"

"Sakura," Kakashi supplied.

"Right," Anko nodded. "I've seen her around a few times and from what I've seen, she's a zealous Sasuke fangirl and while I'm sure she'll grow out of it, you wanted her specifically."

"A lot of girls are at that age," Kakashi pointed out. "Even Hyuuga Hinata, the only one who graduated who wasn't a Sasuke fangirl, is infatuated with Naruto so I couldn't pick a Kunoichi based on that. And Sakura reminds me a lot of Rin, actually."

"Better not tell her that until Sakura outgrows the fangirl stage," Anko warned him. "Or she will hurt you."

"Duly noted," Kakashi said dryly. "And she's gotten a lot better in the past month. It's like she's years more mature and she hasn't slipped into fangirl mode once. She really seems to be taking this seriously."

"A tribute to your teaching skills, I'm sure," Anko deadpanned.

"I can see where I'm not wanted," Kakashi sniffed. "I guess I'll have to take my underappreciated teaching skills elsewhere…"

"Oh, you know you'd be lost without me," Anko teased. "After all, Obito has enough tardiness issues of his own to be able to make you show up on time all by himself."

"Oh, I don't know," Kakashi said thoughtfully. "Last month when you both were on a mission, Itachi did an amazing job of getting me where I needed to be far before I felt I needed to be there."

"True," Anko conceded. "But which would you rather have? The threat of losing your precious-but-replaceable porn or a happy fiancé?"

Eyeing Anko's fishnet top and appreciating the fact she'd taken off her trench coat, Kakashi's decision was easy. "A happy fiancé."

----

"So this is your first time leaving the village on your first ever C-rank mission," Minato said at dinner that night.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Dad! Don't tell me you're going to get all sappy on me!"

"I wouldn't dream of it," Minato promised. "Still, this is not just one milestone but two. And after only a month! You know, Jiraiya-sensei didn't let us leave the village for a good three months."

Naruto snorted. "Is that because he didn't want to leave the convenience of the Konoha onsen and – more specifically – the women's area?"

"Partly," Minato admitted. "But, unlike with you, when we moved up to C-rank missions it was because we were ready for them, not out of necessity."

"If Kakashi didn't feel we were ready for it, he would have stopped us before we got ourselves blacklisted from at least one of the D-rank missions," Naruto claimed.

Minato looked at him incredulously.

"Probably," he amended.

"So why Wave?" Minato asked curiously.

"Huh?"

"You said you wanted an escort mission and then specified that you would prefer it to be in the Land of Wave," Minato reminded him.

"Oh right," Naruto said. So maybe he'd been periodically checking the incoming missions to see when Tazuna's would come up so he, Sakura, and Sasuke could pace themselves in their mission failing and they could demand a C-rank at the right time. "Well, I've heard the situation is Wave is pretty bad right now and if this guy needs an escort, he must be pretty important, right?"

"Possibly," Minato agreed.

"And if he's important than he may be able to help Wave and so by helping him, we'll be making things better there. And besides," Naruto grinned cheekily. "He's a bridge builder, right? So if we manage to save his life on our mission then he'll be so grateful he'll have to name the bridge after me. I can just see it now: The Great Naruto Bridge!"

"I never did understand why you decided that was one of your goals in life when you were eight," Minato remarked.

"Because when I was eight it occurred to me that that would be awesome," Naruto replied.

"Ah, I forget the 'awesome' factor," Minato said wryly. "That was around when you decided you wanted to be Hokage, isn't it? You know, at first you just saw all the paperwork I had to do and long hours I put in and declared you wouldn't get within five people of the position. What changed your mind?"

The fact that he'd always wanted to be Hokage since the Third had explained his job to him so many years ago and he'd realized that if he were Hokage he'd have respect but mixed up the cause and effect? He couldn't very well say that, though. His father had been suspicious enough during those first few weeks he couldn't remember his life in this timeline, but fortunately he had the easy fallback of 'trauma' from seeing the end results of the massacre. And the massacre itself, but that was another thing that he couldn't very well admit to, especially as his father knew Itachi never would have left him there to witness all that death at such a 'young' age.

"I didn't," Naruto finally settled on a reason, "but then Orochimaru came and killed the Uchiha and destroyed Sasuke's innocence and I never want something like that to happen to anybody I care about ever again. I want the power to protect Konoha and all my precious people who make it up. Becoming Hokage seems like the best way to do this."

Minato smiled at him and Naruto could tell that he was pleased with that answer.

"Besides," he couldn't resist adding. "All that paperwork won't stand a chance against my army of Kage Buushin!"

----

"So tomorrow's your first mission outside of the village, huh?" Itachi asked rhetorically. They were on their own that night as Obito and Rin had gone out for a nice dinner.

Sasuke looked up from his food in surprise. "How did you know?"

"I know everything," Itachi said mysteriously. At Sasuke's skeptical look, he relented. "The Hokage contacted Obito as a backup in case Anko failed to get him to show up on time tomorrow."

"With everyone running around knocking themselves out to get Kakashi to show up on time, it's a wonder he ever manages to be late to anything anymore," Sasuke noted.

Itachi nodded. "Indeed. Most people would see him being late as a sign of laziness, but these days the amount of effort he has to put into it is simply ridiculous."

"How old were you when you had your first mission outside of the village?" Sasuke asked.

"Seven," Itachi replied. "It was two months after I had graduated the Academy and a local village was having some problems with wild animal attacks so we had to take them out."

"Killing on your first C-rank mission?" Sasuke asked distastefully. Then again, he had never gotten around to killing anyone until he was sixteen. Obviously as an ANBU captain at 13 and committing the massacre at the same age, things were different for Itachi, but seven was still a little young.

Itachi shrugged. "Better wild animals than humans for your first time. Your mission probably won't involve either since it is a simple escort mission, but you never know when a mission will take an unexpected turn. You can't account for everything and clients will not always be honest with you."

Sasuke nodded. He'd learned that particular lesson the hard way when he thought Kakashi had gotten himself killed the last time they'd taken this mission. "I hope the mission runs smoothly, but according to Naruto the situation in Waves is pretty dire, so who even knows?"

"So you're pretty happy with your team then?"

"I've known Kakashi and Naruto for years," Sasuke replied. "They may annoy me to no end, but I'm used to them, I guess. Sakura's gotten over her fangirl tendencies remarkably fast so even working with her isn't really a problem. Although if they don't let that whole 'revenge' thing drop then I simply cannot be held accountable for my actions."

Itachi looked at him seriously. "You still hate and seek vengeance on Orochimaru for the massacre?"

Sasuke winced internally. He really didn't want to talk about the massacre, especially not with the person who had actually perpetrated it, regardless of what most people in this new timeline believed. Besides, how was he supposed to reassure his brother that he didn't hate him when he did, in fact, hate Orochimaru and wasn't supposed to know what had really happened?

"I hold Orochimaru responsible for destroying my family," he said slowly. In more ways than one as the snake sannin had not only induced him to abandon Kakashi, Sakura, and Naruto right when they were finally coming together as a team – which he still wasn't sure if he regretted or not – but also had manifested himself during his fight with Itachi and drove him closer to his death by exhaustion. Granted, with his illness, he would have died soon anyway, but that really wasn't the point, was it?

Sasuke chose his next words carefully. "And yes I do fully intend to see him pay for that. The massacre…I never saw it coming. I don't know why it happened and the not knowing, not understanding, is killing me. It all seems so senseless. But…it's not just that. Orochimaru is crazy. From what I can tell, he's brilliant, but no one can deny he's mad. The experiments he's conducted on people, will conduct on people…he sheds bodies like the snakes he so loves and if he isn't stopped he will continue to wreak havoc on the world." And did he mention how much he wanted revenge? Still, given the situation, downplaying that and focusing on the things he'd seen in his time in Oto and the Konoha invasion itself was probably the best way to handle it.

----

"I'm going on a mission tomorrow," Sakura announced to her parents.

"That's nice," her mother said absently. "What is it this time? Gardening? Filling in at the onsen? Babysitting? Ninja are so versatile."

"Nope," Sakura said cheerfully. "We already went through all of those, so we're going on an escort mission."

"An escort mission?" her father asked. "Does that mean you're going to be leaving Konoha?"

Sakura nodded. "We're going to be escorting a bridge builder back to his home in the Land of Waves. It's only a C-rank mission, so it should be pretty basic. Just watching out for bandits and wild animal attacks, that kind of thing."

"Supposed to be?" her father repeated. "Does that mean it won't?"

Sakura shrugged. "I don't know," she lied. "It shouldn't be, but it never hurts to be prepared and might kill you not to be, so-"

"Kill you?" her mother jumped on that, alarmed.

"I'm not going to get myself killed on my very first C-rank mission, mom," Sakura assured her. "Or on any C-rank mission if I can help it. Kakashi, Naruto, and Ino would never let me live it down. Even Sasuke would probably have something to say about it."

"Sakura…" her mother hesitated. "You're sure that being a ninja is what you want to do?"

"It's a little late to be asking me that now that I've graduated and am a registered Kunoichi, don't you think?" Sakura pointed out.

"I know," her mother acknowledged. "But it's one thing to know that 'one day' your only child would be facing life or death situations and it's quite another for that 'one day' to be tomorrow."

"I know that you're worried mom, but Kakashi is very well qualified and I have nothing but faith in him and in my teammates. I'll face tougher challenges then getting one old man home in one piece and I'll come back from them in one piece myself, I promise. Besides, I'd be hopelessly behind if I switched career paths now," Sakura said lightly.

"We may not understand the life of a ninja very well," her father told her seriously. "But don't forget that we're proud of you, honey."

----

The next day, to their surprise and mild horror, Kakashi was already waiting at the Konoha gates when the three genin showed up.

"How in the world did I manage to be late?" Sakura wondered. "My house is twenty minutes away and I left forty-five minutes early!"

"You're not late," Sasuke said, sounding as if he were in shock as well. "Kakashi is…early."

"You know, it's a sad day indeed when we get somewhere after Kakashi does," Naruto shook his head ruefully.

"Laugh all you want," Kakashi told them. "Anko wanted me to be here on time and she can be…very persuasive."

"Really?" Naruto asked with a raised eyebrow.

Kakashi nodded happily. "Yes, but you're far too young to hear anymore."

"Like we'd even want to," Sakura said, making a face.

"You're honestly accusing us of being too young?" Naruto demanded. "Seriously? After everything? That's rich."

"He's got a point," Tazuna piped up. "You three barely look old enough to have hit puberty. Especially her."

Sakura automatically raised her fist but Naruto held her back.

"Now, now, Sakura-chan," he whispered, "if I didn't get to kill him, neither do you. Besides, Wave needs him, remember?"

Reluctantly, Sakura stood down. She knew Naruto was right but…honestly, given the man was lying to them about the danger of the mission and could very well have gotten the three fresh-out-of-the-Academy genin killed (particularly her as she was useless at the time and Naruto as he'd confided that he couldn't properly use his chakra until he'd accessed the Kyuubi's, which made it ironic that Sasuke was the one to nearly die), would it kill him to be polite? It would have made their decision to keep going once they found out the truth a lot easier.

With that, they were off.

Chapter Text

"Okay," Kakashi said after they made camp for the night. "Is Tazuna sleeping?"

Sakura nodded. "He should be out for awhile and quite hung-over tomorrow, so that will make him more irritable."

"He insults me and I'm still going to yell at him," Naruto insisted.

Sasuke snorted. "Please. Did you see how he reacted when your father mentioned your relation? If anything, he'll start in on Sakura like he did this morning."

"If he insults her, I'm going to be on hand to stop her from killing him," Naruto vowed.

"That's the spirit," Kakashi said. "Now, I can't believe we forgot to do this before we left, but we need to make a list."

"A list?" Sakura repeated.

"Indeed. While this may have been over a decade and a half ago for me it was still six years ago for you, Sakura, and some time in between that for the boys. As such, unless we pool our memories, we're unlikely to be able to use our future knowledge to our advantage," Kakashi concluded. "So…what do you remember?"

"I remember Sasuke trying to kill himself when we first met Zabuza," Naruto replied immediately.

"Well, I remember Naruto just standing around like an idiot the first time we got attacked and getting himself poisoned," Sasuke retorted.

"Which I then heroically neutralized while I valiantly declared that I wanted to go on," Naruto countered.

"If you had been anyone else, you would have bled to death!" Sasuke pointed out.

"But I wasn't so I didn't," Naruto replied, sticking his tongue out.

"So we met Zabuza before the battle that led to his death," Kakashi summarized. "I think I remember that…I overused the Sharingan and passed out from chakra exhaustion. Very embarrassing."

"We tried to see under your mask but you wore, like, five of them," Sakura added.

"Serves you right for trying to abuse my trust," Kakashi sniffed.

"Trust?" Sasuke repeated. "You didn't 'trust' us; you passed out!"

"Which I felt secure in doing because of my faith in you," Kakashi replied. "And then we were also attacked…we realized that because it's been dry and there were puddles. Anything else?"

"I remember Naruto freaking out and scaring that poor rabbit half to death," Sakura said, glaring at her blond teammate.

"Hey, be fair," Naruto implored, holding up his hands in self-defense. "That was a diversion by Zabuza and the way we knew he was even there."

"I reawoke my Sharingan for the first time since the massacre and heroically-but-stupidly sacrificed myself for Naruto," Sasuke offered.

"Good thing, too, as that was one of the pitifully few things that convinced me that you weren't a complete bastard after you ran off with that pedophile," Naruto told him.

Sasuke made a face. "God, you're making it sound like we had an affair!"

"I don't need to hear about your time in Oto, Sasuke," Naruto said virtuously, then hid behind Sakura as Sasuke lunged at him. "That was also when I first accessed the Kyuubi chakra and started to learn how to properly use my own. Oh, and I met Haku in the forest and thought he was a girl."

"Who's Haku?" Kakashi asked blankly, having perhaps less of an idea who Haku was than before they had gone back.

"The kid in the mask who pretended to be a hunter-nin when you were going to kill Zabuza," Sasuke replied. "He trapped us in those ice mirrors."

"His story was so sad," Naruto said sympathetically. "I'm glad Zabuza realized that he was more than a tool to him in the end…"

"Inari's story was sad, too," Sakura pointed out. "I don't remember all of the details, but it was something about how his hero and adopted dad was put to death by Gatou terrify the villagers into submitting to him and so Inari was all traumatized and Sasuke-like."

"But unlike Sasuke it just took Naruto yelling at him and then saving his life before he got over himself and recruited the villagers to help stand up to Gatou's men, who then fled in the face of civilians armed with gardening tools," Kakashi remembered. "When you get them that cheap, you have to expect a decline in quality. So…was that it?"

"I think so," Sasuke said. "Oh, except for that we all need to stay away from the water when Zabuza's around or he can trap us there with almost embarrassing ease, like with Kakashi."

"You know," Kakashi said, looking at him seriously. "You're lucky I'm not that kind of person, or I would totally swear vengeance on you for that."

"Oh shut up."

----

"So are you sure you guys are up to protecting me?" Tazuna asked nervously a few days later.

"Of course we are," Kakashi answered smoothly. "Konoha wouldn't have assigned us to this C-rank mission fraught with such perils as bandit raids and squirrel attacks."

"Squirrel attacks?" Tazuna repeated skeptically.

Kakashi shrugged. "I've seen it happen."

"Right," Tazuna said, clearly deciding to just let it go. "It's not like I doubt Konoha but…I heard you haven't managed to pass a mission yet."

"Who told you that?" Sakura asked.

"Quite a few people actually," Tazuna replied. "They seemed to think it was some kind of accomplishment."

"It is," Naruto insisted. "Of course, I managed to cause us to fail more than Sasuke-"

"Which it typical and in most cases a bad thing," Sasuke interrupted. "It's not like we 'failed' them, per se, we just…used alternative methods of carrying them out and not all of them were successful."

"Like what?" Tazuna wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"Like that time we decided to try fighting fire with fire and ended up burning down the house a lot quicker," Sakura said, ruefully shaking her head.

"In our defense, it WAS Kabuto's house," Kakashi added, not that that actually meant anything to the old bridge builder. "Or that time with Tora…Sasuke, was it REALLY necessary to use Tsukuyomi to let it see what it was like to have an army of the Daimyo's wife smothering it?"

"Yes, yes it was," Sasuke said, crossing his arms. "It needed to see that its situation could be worse and that scratching me is not acceptable. I regret nothing."

"You never do," Naruto sighed. "Hey, everyone watch out for this puddle. They're always easy to miss on days when it hasn't rained in a week."

"If it hasn't rained in a week, why are there puddles?" Tazuna asked sensibly.

"Magic?" Naruto suggested.

"Genjutsu?" Sasuke offered.

"Ninjutsu?" Sakura tried.

"Alas! I am slain!" Kakashi said as shuriken chain cut him in two.

"Nice try, but the log was already dead," Sasuke said flatly.

Naruto quickly created four Kage Buushin, two to hold each of the two attackers back. As the so-called 'demon brothers' struggled to free themselves, Sakura punched one of them in the face, knocking him out, and Sasuke used a Katon on the other, causing sever third-degree burns.

"I would say that was overkill, Sasuke," Kakashi said as he reappeared as if nothing had just happened. "But I know you were just trying to avenge Naruto's stab wound."

"Stab wound?" Tazuna asked. "He didn't get stabbed."

Kakashi shrugged. "It happened awhile ago."

Sasuke's eye twitched, but he said nothing.

"Even if these two were almost ridiculously out of our league, they still are more than simple bandits and I strongly suspect that they aren't squirrels. They could be working for squirrels though. Is there any reason a squirrel might be out to kill you?" Kakashi asked gravely.

"…No. Gatou is, though," Tazuna confessed.

"Gatou?" Naruto asked. "You mean that guy who's slowly crushing the life out of Wave?"

"Yes," Tazuna said, surprised. "You've heard about our plight?"

"Hokage's son," Naruto replied easily. "I hear a lot."

"You should know, then, how much of a threat my bridge represents to Gatou. If we can finish it, if there is another way for people to travel and trade in and out of Wave, my people won't need to go through Gatou anymore and he stands to lose quite a bit of money," Tazuna sighed heavily. "I can see how you might be tempted to abandon me…of course, then my poor, beautiful daughter would be all alone in the world…"

"Nice try," Sakura told him. "But Kakashi's engaged and his fiancé is one of the scariest people I've ever met."

"And my cute little grandson will swear vengeance…" Tazuna tried again.

"We'll do it," Naruto said practically before he finished that sentence.

"That LAST thing this world needs is more people out for vengeance," Kakashi concurred.

"Agreed," Sakura nodded.

"Seriously. Go die," Sasuke said flatly.

"Sasuke, I thought you were past this," Kakashi said, sounding disappointed.

"I can always give my Therapy Jutsu another go if you'd like," Naruto volunteered, trying not to sound too eager.

Another eye twitch.

----

"Hey Sasuke, think fast," Naruto said before lobbing a kunai at him. They had just arrived in Wave after a very long and boring boat ride and apparently Naruto decided hurling deadly weapons at his best friend with little warning was a good way to relieve that boredom.

Sasuke quickly got out of the way. "What the hell?"

"Nice aim," Kakashi said, eyeing the snow-white rabbit Naruto's kunai had pinned to the tree. "I take it this means Zabuza's around?"

Rolling her eyes, Sakura quickly moved to free the frightened creature. "He better be or I'm going to take my annoyance about Naruto needlessly traumatizing this poor creature out on Naruto."

Naruto gulped and looked around quickly. "Over there!" he said, pointing to a tree. Sure enough, Zabuza was standing on top of it.

" 'Man Down' Kakashi," Zabuza said. "No wonder the Demon Brothers were no match against you. They say you know over a thousand jutsus and never leave anyone behind."

"I liked my old nickname better," Kakashi said idly.

Sasuke snorted. "Kakashi didn't actually do anything against the 'demon brothers'."

"Not true, I faked my own death," Kakashi corrected.

"Not very convincingly," Sakura said.

"It fooled you last time," Kakashi pointed out.

"Last time we were idiots," Sakura replied.

"Not going to argue with that one," Kakashi muttered. "So…Momochi Zabuza, the demon of the mist."

"I see you've heard of me," Zabuza said, sounding pleased.

"Demon?" Naruto asked skeptically. "He doesn't LOOK like a demon."

"He slaughtered his entire graduating class," Kakashi explained.

"So?" Naruto shrugged. "Does he have red eyes? Can he grow claws or fangs? What about having a seal to stop the demon from being released? Is he just called that because Kirigakure was jealous they didn't have a Jinchuriki?"

"Wasn't the previous host for the Sanbi the Yondaime Mizukage, Yagura?" Sakura asked.

Zabuza growled at the name. And also because they were ignoring him.

"Is he the one you tried to kill?" Naruto asked sympathetically. "Don't feel bad for failing; he was possessed. Literally."

"I'm going to kill you all very slowly and I'm going to enjoy it," Zabuza informed, unsheathing his giant sword.

In response, Naruto called forth his Rasengan, Kakashi created a Chidori, Sasuke activated his Mangekyou Sharingan, and Sakura concentrated her chakra into her fists.

----

As Kakashi was about to deliver the finishing blow roughly five minutes later, a senbon whizzed past him and hit Zabuza in the neck. "I was about to do that…" Kakashi muttered.

"Thank you so much for wearing my target down for me," Haku said from up in a tree. "I have been searching for him for quite some time."

"You wanted to kill Zabuza?" Sasuke asked.

"Indeed. It is quite important to my village," Haku responded.

"Why didn't you just wait two seconds for Kakashi to finish him off then?" Sasuke pressed.

"I didn't want there to be any chance for him to get away," Haku lied.

"Well," Kakashi said, examining the 'corpse,' "he's not moving and doesn't appear to be breathing so there is a good chance that he's dead."

"Only a good chance?" Sakura asked. "Isn't that kind of the, oh, I don't know, definition of being dead? People can't live without breathing, you know."

Kakashi shrugged. "I've seen it happen."

"Kakashi's right!" Naruto said suddenly. "He might become a zombie. Quick, let's cut off his head!"

"That's really not necessary," Haku said, moving quickly beside his mentor. "If it will make you feel any better, though, I'll make sure to do that when I dispose of the body. Thanks again for your help." With that, he was gone.

"So…which way to your house?" Kakashi asked Tazuna, who was standing there frozen.

"You guys are…you guys are incredible," he finally managed to say.

"Well of course they are," Kakashi said matte-of-factly. "They're my students, after all."

"I had no idea you were this good," Tazuna said, shaking his head in amazement.

Kakashi shrugged. "I was in ANBU for awhile. Of course, I really wasn't quite suited for it, but…"

"Why not?" Sakura asked.

"Well, I came with my own mask, which was a plus, but since everyone already associated it with me, it didn't do much for concealing my identity," Kakashi explained. "So…directions?"

---

"Inari, say hello to these people. They are the ninjas who protected your Grandpa," Inari's mother, Tsunami, told him when he got back home. Team 7 had already been there for an hour or so.

"But mom, these people are all going to die," Inari protested, pouting.

"That's no reason to be rude," Sakura told him sternly. "Everyone dies. We've known lots of people who have died. In fact, a good friend of ours died once. Of course, he got better, but that usually doesn't happen…"

"There's no way you can win against Gatou," Inari insisted.

"No, there's no way you, as civilians, can win against Gatou," Sasuke corrected. "We're trained ninja and can take on any half-rate mercenary he's cheap enough to throw at us."

"Zabuza and Haku are a little harder," Kakashi added, "but nothing we can't handle."

"Seriously, trained ninja here," Naruto pointed out. "We'll save Wave, I promise!"

"What, are you stupid?" Inari scoffed.

"Yes," Sasuke replied automatically.

Naruto glared at him but said nothing.

"There's no such thing as heroes," Inari insisted.

"You could actually make an argument for half of the people I know being heroes," Naruto said idly.

"If you don't want to die, just leave," Inari said impassively before storming off.

"I like him," Sasuke decided.

Sakura snorted. "Yeah, because he's like the spitting image of what you used to be."

"So? I turned out fine," Sasuke claimed.

There was an awkward silence.

Kakashi coughed.

"What? I did!"

----

"You're kidding."

"If we want to be in good shape to defeat Zabuza and Haku next week, we've got to be in good shape," Kakashi said cheerfully.

"But…climbing trees? Even I had them mastered years ago!" Naruto pointed out.

"I don't know that and what kind of Jounin Sensei would I be if I didn't run you through a basic chakra control exercise like this?" Kakashi asked rhetorically.

"A sane one?" Sasuke suggested.

"And thus a useless one," Kakashi agreed. "I'll go first to show you." Slowly, Kakashi walked to the top of the tree. "Now you try."

Rolling their eyes, Sakura, Sasuke, and Naruto made their way to the top of the tree as well.

"Very good!" Kakashi cheered. "You have the basics down nicely."

"What do you mean 'the basics'?" Sakura asked, getting a bad feeling about this.

"Well, you can't reasonably claim to have mastered something after only using it once and without properly understanding it, no matter how possessed your eyes make you look, right Sasuke?" Kakashi asked.

Sasuke did not deign to reply.

"So how long are we doing this for?" Naruto asked with some trepidation.

"The next two days!" Kakashi said cheerfully. "After that you can come to the bridge with Tazuna and help with construction since all the workers are quitting. Remember, Naruto, we'll be counting on you. All several dozen of you."

"Got it," Naruto nodded.

"Now, get to it!" Kakashi ordered gleefully.

Chapter Text

"Why are you still here?" Inari demanded, annoyed, at breakfast few days later. "You escorted Grandpa home, you can go now."

"We could," Naruto agreed. "But then he would die and that would make the whole 'escorting him safely home' thing kind of pointless."

"This whole thing is 'kind of pointless'," Inari said mockingly as he stood up and went back upstairs.

"Your attempts at getting through to him not working?" Sakura asked sympathetically.

"Not really," Naruto groaned. "He's so stubborn!"

"Why don't you just use your 'therapy jutsu' on him," Sasuke asked, the air quotes impossible to miss.

"I would," Naruto said, "except it loses most of it's effectiveness when not accompanied by physical violence and I don't think I'm allowed to hit the client…"

"Especially not if the client is an eight-year-old," Kakashi concurred.

Naruto's eyes widened suddenly. "One of my clones dispelled." Ever since the arriving at Tazuna's house, Naruto had left two clones out all night. The first was to pretend to be him, training so hard that he passed out and the second was to conceal itself and then dispel if Haku happened upon him.

"Go after it," Kakashi ordered. "And Sasuke, why don't you go, too? You haven't gotten a chance to take revenge on anything in at least a week…"

"And if I don't?" Sasuke asked out of habit as he stood up.

"I thought today we'd start on water walking," Kakashi replied.

Sasuke and Naruto practically bolted for the door.

"What are we supposed to do while they're gone?" Sakura asked.

Kakashi raised an eyebrow at her.

"You don't REALLY mean we're going to practice water walking, do you?" Sakura asked. "After all, it's been nearly a week, Zabuza could attack at any moment, we need to guard Tazuna."

"I agree," Kakashi said innocently.

"You…do?" Sakura asked suspiciously.

"Absolutely," he said airily. "Which is why it's fortunate that this bridge is, like most bridges, built over a large body of water."

"Why do you hate us?" Sakura asked despairingly. "What have we ever done to you?"

"Well, for one thing you spoiled the end to one of Jiraiya's books," Kakashi told her.

"That was Naruto, not me!" she pointed out.

"I didn't see you trying to stop him. Then you ruined my bell test. And finally, who's to say I hate you? Maybe I'm just trying to get you ready for the upcoming Chuunin Exams," Kakashi said in his best instructorly voice.

"…Don't mess with the bell test, got it."

----

"Is this the plant you want?" clone Naruto was asking Haku as Naruto and Sasuke arrived.

Haku nodded. "Thank you for helping out."

"You sure are working early…" Naruto trailed off. "I'm sorry, I'm not always the best with genders. My first instinct is 'girl' but I've spent too much time with Neji and Itachi over the years to make any assumptions. And for that matter, I'm still not sure Deidara was a guy…"

Haku smiled kindly at him. "I am, indeed, a male."

"You're not just saying that so I'll sound stupid referring to you as a guy, are you?" Naruto asked. "Because I've met some androgynous people who have done that, you know."

"We may very well never meet again, so why would I do that?" Haku asked.

Naruto shrugged. "For the hell of it?"

"I can only offer you my word that I am, indeed, a boy," Haku said. "But seeing as how you don't know me, I don't quite know how much that's worth."

Naruto eyed Haku carefully. "I believe you," he said finally.

"I'm glad. So why are you out here so early?" Haku inquired politely.

"I fell asleep outside," Naruto explained. "My teacher's making us climb trees until we pass out. He's kind of evil. Calls it 'training.'"

"Training? And that forehead protector…could you be a ninja?" Haku asked, sounding vaguely interested.

"Yeah, if you ever want to do something exciting, you've got to be a ninja," Naruto explained. "Although I suppose working at Ichiraku's wouldn't be too bad…"

"Where are you from?" Haku asked.

"Konoha the greatest place on earth," Naruto said proudly.

"Is it, now?" Haku asked, smiling a little.

"Oh yes. In fact, we haven't had a bloodline massacre in...God, must be four years now," Naruto said cheerfully.

"Konoha has bloodline massascres?" Haku asked, alarmed. "I thought Konoha was a safe haven for those with a Kekkei genkai."

"Oh, it is," Naruto assured the other boy. "That was...complicated and the work of a missing-nin." Just not in this timeline.

"Why are you training?" Haku asked, changing the subject.

"Because Kakashi threatened to make me spend three days watching everyone I know eating ramen nonstop buy not letting me have any," Naruto explained. "And then he said something about squirrels, but I was too horrified to really listen."

"I see…" Haku said.

"Oh, and also because I want to protect the people I care about," Naruto said. "But my immediate reason for being here was the no ramen."

"So you have someone who is important to you?" Haku asked, choosing not to focus on the ramen obsession.

Naruto shrugged. "Yeah, I do. I have lots of precious people, actually. Losing them is hard and I don't think I'd survive the loss without other precious people being there to try and fill the void."

"When a person has something important to protect...that's when they can truly become strong," Haku declared.

"I agree," Naruto said solemnly.

"Let's meet again sometime," Haku said, standing up. "I know you will become strong."

"You are such a sap," Sasuke whispered to the real Naruto.

"Oh shut up, what was I supposed to say?" Naruto shot back. "Besides, I like Haku."

"God knows why, he tried to kill you," Sasuke muttered.

"Not very hard," Naruto countered. "And I wouldn't be talking about attempted murder, Sasuke, since you had to have Orochi-freaking-maru talk you down from killing me."

"Will you just let that go already?" Sasuke demanded.

"Sure, the minute you stop calling me an idiot because I graduated last in the class," Naruto promised.

Sasuke snorted. "You didn't even graduate; it was an act of God."

"Figures you'd call Orochimaru God…"

With that, Sasuke and Naruto decided Haku was sufficiently ahead of them and followed him back to Zabuza's hideout. It was slow going as Haku was very cautious, but they eventually made it.

"I sense three other chakras besides Haku and Zabuza's," Naruto said quietly. "Is that Gatou, do you think?"

"I have no idea what his chakra is supposed to feel like, but who else would be there?" Sasuke asked. "It's times like these I miss Karin…"

"Karin?" Naruto repeated. "Isn't she the one who tried to drug you?"

"Okay, so maybe I don't miss her that much…That's him," Sasuke said, his eyes trained on the man who had just exited the hideout. He and Naruto silently followed them until they were about a mile away from the enemy ninja and then they struck.

Naruto slit the two guard's throats with a kunai and Sasuke snapped Gatou's neck with a well-placed blow to the back of the head.

"Wow, Sasuke, I didn't even know you knew how to fight without the Sharingan," Naruto said, sounding deeply impressed.

Sasuke scowled. "And I didn't know you could fight somebody without trying to save them from themselves."

"That only applies to ninja and the odd civilian I've gotten attached to," Naruto explained. "Mercenaries are on their own."

Sasuke crouched down next to Gatou. "Let's just see if he has any handwriting sample on him…" After digging through the dead man's pocket for a moment, he found a half-finished letter. "Perfect."

Activating his Sharingan, Sasuke sat on the ground, pulled out another piece of paper and began to write.

"So…what are you doing?" Naruto asked when Sasuke was STILL writing twenty minutes later.

"Forging a will," Sasuke said like it was obvious.

"Oh? Who did Gatou leave everything to?" Naruto asked, curious.

"He left the entirety of his ill-gotten fortune in trust to Momochi Zabuza," Sasuke said, "to use as for the express purpose of returning Wave to its former glory."

Naruto stared at him. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

Sasuke shrugged. "The way I see it , if he's happy in Wave, he's not bothering us."

"Oh, and now he can come one step closer to making Kiri like he thinks Konoha is because he'll have experience with reforming a place and with the power that money will give him the Mizukage won't dare go after him!" Naruto exclaimed. "I just hope he doesn't let the power go to his head…"

Sasuke shrugged again. "It's not our problem either way."

Naruto glared at him. "We don't live in a vacuum, Sasuke. What happens in one nation affects the others."

"Save the politics for someone who cares," Sasuke said, signing Gatou's name and two names he knew but couldn't quite place as witnesses. "Now pick up the body and let's go."

They quickly made their way back to Zabuza's hideout. Before they could reach the door, Haku opened it and stood staring at them. "May I help you?" he asked, recognizing Naruto easily since they had parted only an hour ago.

"Yeah, we thought you might like this," Naruto said, dumping Gatou's body at his feet. "We were a little surprised at the contents of the will, though…"

"Will?" Haku asked blankly.

"Here," Sasuke said, shoving the paper into Haku's hands. "Go start a revolution or something."

"It was nice seeing you again," Naruto called. "And if you could just NOT attack Tazuna again, that would be great. After all, it wouldn't due to ruin the economy of your new country!"

----

"Gatou's dead," Sasuke announced upon returning to Tazuna's house for dinner that night.

"And that took you ten hours?" Kakashi asked skeptically.

"No, we were sparring for the rest of the time," Naruto explained. "We never really get a chance to fight properly and so we couldn't very well lose this opportunity, now could we?"

"Gatou…dead?" Inari repeated. "There's no way idiots like you managed to kill him."

"We did," Naruto confirmed. "It wasn't that hard, really. It helped that we caught him off guard."

"So does that mean the missions over?" Sakura asked. "Or should we stay until the bridge is complete?"

"It should only be a few more days," Tazuna offered.

"Let's take a vote," Kakashi said. "All in favor of leaving now?"

Sasuke raised his hand.

"All in favor of staying and helping?"

Naruto and Sakura raised their hands.

"As I'm abstaining so as to remain impartial, that's two-to-one in favor of staying. Sorry, Sasuke," Kakashi said.

Sasuke sighed. "Whatever. Just as long as when we get back we can tell everyone I got the Mangekyou. It would probably be easier to stick to the truth of what happened before with Haku except Naruto took the senbon for me, not vice versa. It's nice, simple, and could easily happen."

"Alright," Naruto agreed. "Even though me dying is kind of lame, at least I heroically took the attack meant for you that might very well have killed me."

"You didn't kill Gatou," Inari insisted. "Stop lying!"

"Why is that so hard to believe?" Sakura asked gently. "I mean, I wasn't there but I know Naruto and Sasuke wouldn't lie about something like that. If they say he's gone, he's gone."

"No one can kill him, he's too strong," Inari insisted.

Naruto shot his teammates a look that clearly said 'somebody share a sob story. I would do it myself, but I don't technically have one here besides losing a mother I don't remember the day I was born.' Naruto's looks tended to be very expressive.

Sasuke just stared back impassively and Sakura had also technically never lost anyone. Kakashi sighed, knowing it was up to him. He still didn't like talking about what had happened, but it had become a little easier after meeting up with his father in the afterlife that one time he was dead for an hour or so.

"My father died too, you know," Kakashi said conversationally. "He wasn't put to death by your father was while he was a big hero, but he might as well have been. He was a hero and an inspiration to everyone until he took a mission and had to choose between completing it and saving his teammates."

Inari said nothing but it was clear he was listening.

"Everyone turned on him," Kakashi continued. "His friends, the villagers, even the very people he had saved. They said that choosing lives over the mission made him trash and, in the end, he took his own life. That really affected me and for a long time I was obsessed with making sure no one thought I was like him and became obsessed with rules and regulations."

Inari looked skeptical. "Really? What happened to change that?"

"My best friend told me that my father was a hero," Kakashi said simply. "Only he wasn't my best friend then, he was just some annoying kid I was stuck on a team with. Then he almost died trying to save our other teammate and forced me to choose her over the mission as well. In the end, we were able to both rescue her and complete our mission, but it was close and even if we hadn't been able to, I wouldn't regret it. Your father stood up to Gatou because he believed that what he was doing was wrong and that somebody had to do it and he was clearly inspiring people. Gatou killed him to try and crush that courage and you know what? It worked. It would be a shame for your father to have died for nothing. If things go back to the way they were before – or worse – then that will be the case. There is no worse death than a pointless one. There are heroes in this world, Inari, and your father was one of them. Things will get better."

Inari said nothing for the rest of the meal but looked oddly pensive.

----

"So this is it, then," Tazuna said, eyeing the completed bridge proudly. "Now I just need a name for it…"

"You know, since we had to go up against a missing S-class Ninja and ended up saving your entire country, you really do owe us a lot more than just C-rank mission pay," Naruto said seriously. "Not to mention the wages you'd owe us for bridge construction."

Tazuna looked nervous. "But…the bridge was just finished today! It'll be quite some time before we can even begin to afford-"

"BUT," Naruto cut him off with a grin. "I think we can be persuaded to forgo the extra pay if you name the bridge after me."

Tazuna thought about that for a moment. "Well, you did speed up bride construction, protect me even though I lied about what kind of danger I was facing, kill Gatou, and inspire Inari…why not? Does 'The Great Naruto Bridge' sound good to you?"

"It sounds fantastic," Naruto told him seriously. "You know, it's been a lifelong dream of mine to have a bridge named after me."

"Really?" Tazuna asked. "That's a strange dream."

"Since I was eight," Naruto confirmed. "And what can I say? I was a strange kid."

"That I'll believe," Sasuke muttered.

"It IS kind of strange that the ninja who tried to kill me has suddenly come into all this money and has decided to play benefactor," Tazuna mused.

Sasuke shrugged. "I wouldn't hold a grudge. It was just a job and now that he doesn't need the money anymore that's completely in the past."

Naruto stared at Sasuke in shock. "Sasuke…telling someone not to hold a grudge? Alright, who are you and where's my real revenge-obsessed best friend?"

Inari hesitantly approached Kakashi. "I…I've been thinking about what you said."

"Oh?" Kakashi prompted.

Inari nodded. "Yeah. I've decided you're right. Dad didn't want us to live in fear and since he died for us, the least I can do is honor that. I may be afraid, but I'm not going to let that hold me back."

Kakashi smiled fondly at the boy, who still couldn't really tell because of the mask. The eyes were a bit of a giveaway, though. "I'm glad."

"You know, it's strange," Sakura said once everyone finished saying their goodbyes. "It feels like we really didn't do much here."

Sasuke snorted. "Maybe you didn't. Kakashi used a non-violent form of Therapy Jutsu on Inari and Naruto and I killed Gatou and saved Zabuza and Haku."

"Don't worry, Sakura-chan," Naruto said encouragingly. "I'm sure you'll find something to do eventually!"

Sakura twitched.

Chapter Text

When Team 7 returned from their first official C-rank mission, Minato and his team insisted on taking the new Team 7 out to dinner to hear all about it. Itachi and Haruno Keisuke and Momoko were invited as well, but Sakura's parents felt they would really be far happier not knowing the kind of danger their daughter faced now that she was old enough to do so regardless of what they thought and declined.

"So I trust you didn't encounter any problems?" Minato asked.

Sakura coughed. "Didn't Kakashi give you the mission report, Hokage-sama?"

Minato laughed. "Right. Kakashi won't have that in for a good…two weeks, I'd say. Why?"

"It turned out that Tazuna was lying about it being an C-rank mission and we had to fight three missing-nin," she explained.

Minato turned to glare at his student.

Kakashi laughed nervously. "I didn't mention that?"

"No, you did not."

"Kakashi's busted," Obito grinned.

"I'm sure he has a good reason," Rin said. "Or at least a reason. Although it is entirely possible that he just forgot…"

"Your support is touching," Kakashi said dryly.

"We try," Rin said sweetly.

"What happened, Kakashi?" Minato demanded.

"It started off pretty basically," Kakashi began. "A few days in, however, we were attacked by the Demon Brothers of Kiri who I'd say were around mid-Chuunin level. Naruto immobilized them while Sakura and Sasuke took them out. Apparently Tazuna was threatening a tycoon named Gatou's stranglehold on the economy of Wave with his bridge so Gatou was trying to have him killed. We fought Zabuza-"

"The Demon of the Mist?" Minato interrupted, glancing at Naruto as if he expected him to be secretly maimed or something.

"Yes," Kakashi nodded. "We managed to drive him off after a long and trying battle and then just when I was about to finish him off, a senbon came out of nowhere and incapacitated him. It turned out to be his student posing as a Kiri Hunter-nin who saved him and nursed him back to health."

"Did he come after you again?" Rin asked, concerned.

"No," Kakashi shook his head. "He probably would have, but by the time he had recovered Gatou had died of natural causes-"

"Natural causes?" Naruto snorted. "His neck was snapped. Or was his throat slit? No, those were the bodyguards…"

"I think dying once your neck breaks is very natural, indeed. Especially given all the people I know who WOULDN'T die under those circumstances," Kakashi defended. "Anyway, Gatou's will left his fortune to Zabuza for some reason under the condition he would use it to rebuild Wave, Zabuza seemed willing to give it a shot, so here we are."

"Wow," Obito said, shaking his head. "You can never just get a normal mission, can you?"

"I know," Kakashi agreed. "It's strange. At least there were no squirrel attacks, though."

"Not again-" Sakura began, but stopped when she saw the look on Obito's face.

He looked traumatized. "So…many…squirrels…"

"It's okay, they're gone," Rin comforted him.

"You mean that really happened?" Sasuke asked in disbelief.

"Of course it happened," Kakashi said, sounding almost offended. "You honestly think I'd make something like that up?"

"I'm not even going to dignify that with a response other than this one informing you of my decision," Naruto said flatly.

"So that's all that happened?" Minato asked. "You don't know anything about this sudden change of regime in Wave?"

"Not really," Sasuke lied. "Something weird happened with my Sharingan, though."

"Oh?" Itachi spoke up, sounding concerned.

"Yeah," Sasuke nodded. "It's like it's different now. See?" With that, he activated his Mangekyou Sharingan.

"Did anyone other than Gatou and his guards die on your mission, Sasuke?" Itachi asked sharply.

Sasuke feigned confusion. "I don't think so. I mean, when we were fighting Zabuza a senbon was heading right for me but Naruto jumped in front of me. We thought it was Zabuza's accomplice pretending to be a hunter-nin trying to hit Zabuza and missing because we were all moving around."

"And what did the senbon do once it hit Naruto?" Itachi pressed.

Sasuke looked down. "I…I thought he was dead. He stopped moving, stopped breathing…he was dead and it was my fault because I didn't notice the senbon and Naruto did and even if he is an annoyingly optimistic idiot, he's still my best friend."

"It's called the Mangekyou Sharingan," Itachi explained quietly. "It can only be acquired from the guilt and grief of watching someone you love die and blaming yourself. It's extremely powerful but corrosive, which is why we are fortunate that Tsunade-Sama found a way to counteract the effects." That was significatnly less traumatizing than Itachi's initial explanation, but since before he was only feet away from his parents' still-warm bodies, he supposed it would almost have to be.

"Do you have one, too?" Sasuke asked innocently.

"Yes," Itachi answered shortly. "I'll show you how to use it later."

"The massacre," Sasuke supplied. Even if he didn't want to talk about it – ever – he couldn't very well mention Shisui's tragic 'suicide' and since everyone knew Itachi was there when 'Orochimaru' was, that would be the most logical time for it to have happened.

Itachi was spared having to say anything when Obito tactfully spoke up, "You're lucky, Sasuke. I've kind of wanted one for awhile, but Kakashi fakes his own death so often that I'm immune by now…"

"Speaking of," Kakashi said, pulling out a kunai. "I think I'll give you another shot right now."

"It won't work if you announce it," Obito groaned.

"Don't. You. Dare," Minato said, an evil look in his eye. "We need to talk."

"Talk? About what?" Kakashi said nervously. "I don't think there's anything we need to talk about. In fact, I'm almost positive that there isn't. Anko's getting back tonight, though, so I really should be going…"

"When, exactly, were you planning on mentioning the fact that you let my son die?" Minato demanded.

"Okay kids, time to go," Obito said, quickly standing up heading for the door.

The rest of the party had enough sense to follow him.

----

Since Team 7's return, they had been working almost nonstop on their taijutsu and – in Sasuke and Sakura's case – bringing up their chakra reserves. It got to be a bit tiresome after three weeks, but there wasn't really anything else for them to do as they were banned from taking D-ranks and Minato was hesitant to give them another C-rank so soon after their C-turned-A-rank mission to Wave.

"Hey look, it's that bird…guess that means its Chuunin Exam time," Kakashi announced cheerfully.

"Aren't the foreign delegations going to arrive really soon?" Sakura asked. "Like, sooner than they should be able to make it? Why in the world does every other nation find out about this before us? We live here!"

"I knew when the Exam was," Naruto offered.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "So? You're the Hokage's son and can't mind your own business. It would be weird if you didn't know."

"I'm going to go get you guys signed up," Kakashi told them. "Unless, of course, you'd like to wait another six months until the next exam and keep working on your taijutsu?"

"No, that's okay," Sakura said quickly. "We can handle it."

"Besides, Neji and Gaara won't beat sense into themselves," Naruto added.

"You won't be able to convince them you 'understand their pain' so easily now that you apparently have none," Sakura pointed out.

"That's fine," Naruto said easily. "We'll just make Sasuke do it."

"Like hell," Sasuke said bluntly. "I prefer to do my angsting in silence, thank you very much."

"If Orochimaru still invades – which he might or might not as Jiraiya says he is still part of Akatsuki – then you would get a chance with Gaara anyway," Kakashi pointed out.

"Wait, Orochimaru's still part of the Akatsuki?" Sasuke asked, surprised.

"He only left because he tried to steal Itachi's body and failed, remember?" Naruto asked. "And since Itachi's still in Konoha and not around to scare him away, why wouldn't he be a member?"

"True enough," Sasuke agreed.

"Well, if you're sure then I'm off to go nominate you. Remember kids," Kakashi said cheerfully, "if you don't all pass on your first try then so help me I'm signing you up for Gai and Lee's early-morning training for the next year."

Looking rather pale, the three soon-to-be-Chuunins nodded their understanding.

"So how do you think the Exam will go?" Sakura asked once Kakashi was gone.

"The first should be easy as long as you don't inexplicably try and give up and make me give an inspirational speech to stop you again," Naruto decided.

"Hey," Sakura flushed. "I was just trying to help you out and protect your dream!"

"Kind of stupid, though," Sasuke pointed out. "Considering that the other nations never would have stood for it if some of their most promising Genins could never be Chuunin because Konoha wanted to make their exam more interesting."

"Cut me some slack; I was twelve!" Sakura protested.

"And the smartest person there besides Shikamaru," Sasuke pointed out. "The second phase should be easy as long as we keep away from Gaara and if for some reason Orochimaru comes after me again I'll just trap him in Tsukuyomi."

"Why not that fire thing? Amatseru?" Naruto asked.

"Amaterasu," Sasuke corrected absently. "And we'll be in a forest so that would be a spectacularly bad idea, even if it would probably kill him."

"Oh, right. The only problem should be the Finals where even if you win you still might not pass," Naruto said.

"Actually, I passed the first time I entered the finals," Sakura pointed out. "When I took the test with Choji and Ino while you guys were gone."

"And I passed the first time my fight lasted longer than five minutes," Sasuke added. "So really, that's only you who somehow managed to fail."

Naruto twitched. "You passed at the same Exam I did!"

"Oh, that was funny," Sakura giggled. "You guys at seventeen being two of the most powerful ninja around going up against a bunch of frightened twelve and thirteen-year-olds…"

"It's not that funny," Naruto grumbled. "We almost didn't pass because everyone we were up against in the finals forfeited."

"Fortunately, our fight was en enough to convince them," Sasuke said.

"Well of course," Sakura told them. "Everyone knew you deserved the rank by that point; it was really just a formality."

Naruto spun around suddenly. "For the last time, Konohamaru! Rocks are not square nor do they have eyes!"

"Yes they do," a muffled voice replied from underneath the rather shoddy rock impersonation.

"Rocks don't talk either," Naruto continued, "nor do they follow me around."

"Aw, you caught us," Konohamaru said, clambering out from underneath his 'disguise' along with his two friends, Udon and Moegi. "Will you play ninja with us again?"

Naruto shrugged. "Ah, why not? It's not like we have anything else to do anyway…"

"Yay!" the Konohamaru corps. cheered.

"Why do you keep making up 'play ninja' when we're already the real thing?" Sasuke demanded.

"Because it's either that or more chakra control techniques," Naruto said flatly. "Besides, Konohamaru's great."

"Did you hear that?" Konohamaru whispered excitedly. "Boss said I'm great!"

"He is kind of adorable," Sakura decided.

Konohamaru looked up at her. "Hey, I've been wondering…Are you Boss's girlfriend?"

"No, she's my teammate," Naruto explained.

"Are you that guy's girlfriend?" Konohamaru asked, jerking his head towards Sasuke.

"Yeah, we all decided no dating until after we make Chuunin," Sakura said hurriedly before Sasuke got a chance to respond.

"Ah, so it's a love triangle!" Konohamaru nodded wisely.

"It's really not," Sasuke told him, but Konohamaru wasn't listening.

"Sakura and her teammates sitting in a tree…" he sang, running off followed by his two friends.

"I'm going to kill him," Sakura said flatly.

"Don't do that," Naruto implored. "He's eight!"

"Fine," Sakura relented. "I'll just maim him." With that, she took off after him, leaving Sasuke and Naruto no choice but to follow.

When they reached Konohamaru, he was being held off the ground by an irate Kankuro. "Watch where you're going, why don't you?" he growled.

"Oh my God, is that what I think it is?" Naruto asked, horrified.

"That would probably defend on what you think it is," Sakura answered, uncertain as to what Naruto thought he was doing.

"EVIL!" Naruto cried, pointing a trembling hand in the direction of the Sand siblings. "He's pure evil!"

Kankuro and Temari looked uneasily at Gaara, who was watching the scene impassively.

"Boss?" Konohamaru asked.

"Get away from him Konohamaru! He might eat you!" Naruto warned him.

Poor Kankuro was so shocked he dropped the boy.

"See! He just dropped you! Evil, I tell you!" Naruto insisted.

"Wait…you mean me?" Kankuro asked incredulously.

Naruto nodded vehemently.

"Why are you scared of Kankuro, of all people?" Temari said. The 'when Gaara's standing two feet behind him' went unspoken, of course.

"Three words," Naruto said, taking a deep breath. "Evil. Soulless. Puppets!"

Sakura nodded her understanding. Naruto had always been kind of creeped out when Kankuro decided to use Sasori as his newest puppet. Kankuro had insisted that he needed a new puppet as Sasori had broken his old ones and that it was just an extremely powerful puppet, but Naruto had been firm in his belief that it was essentially their opponent's corpse. "Naruto has puppet issues," she explained. Not THAT severe, but if Naruto wanted to be dramatic, who was she to stop him?

"So do I, for that matter," Sasuke said idly. "I mean, I won't run away terrified like Naruto's on the verge of doing, but they're still rather disturbing."

"You do?" Sakura asked. "I didn't know that."

"Oh yes," Sasuke confirmed. "My brother and my cousin Shisui took me to a Bunraku Theater once…well, suffice to say that was the most traumatized I've been since the massacre and the second-most traumatized since that snake attacked me in the forest. Even now, it ranks pretty high up there."

Naruto looked confused. "Shisui would have died before the massacre, though. Don't you mean Obito?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Yes, Naruto, I mixed up two of the cousins I've spent the most time with. Who do you take me for? You?"

"Hey!" Naruto protested.

"That may not have been phrased perfectly, but I meant that before the massacre it was my most traumatizing memory, it was the second-most traumatizing thing after the massacre, the third-most after that snake attack, and so on."

"You're scared of me," Kankuro repeated, still stunned.

"Yes, please don't come any closer," Naruto entreated.

"But…what about him?" Temari asked, nodding her head towards her much more intimidating younger brother.

"Why would we be scared of him?" Sakura asked innocently.

"Because he's…" Temari began automatically.

"A Jinchuriki?" Naruto supplied.

"How did you know?" Kankuro demanded.

"My Jinchuriki senses were tingling," Naruto deadpanned.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "You do not have Jinchuriki senses."

"Then how did I know he was a Jinchuriki?" Naruto challenged.

"Then why haven't any of us ever heard of these 'Jinchuriki senses'?" Sasuke countered.

"Because I'm the only Jinchuriki in Konoha and I've never met a fellow Jinchuriki before," Naruto lied. Well, in this timeline he hadn't.

"Y-You're a Jinchuriki, too?" Temari looked downright terrified.

"Yep," Naruto grinned at her.

"And you two knew about this?" Temari asked the non-possessed members of Team 7.

"Everyone knows," Konohamaru replied even though she wasn't talking to him.

"Everyone?" Kankuro asked. "And…you don't care?"

"Why would we?" Konohamaru looked confused. "My grandfahter, the previous Hokage, sealed the Kyuubi in him so it wouldn't kill everyone. He saved us."

"I swear, I will never get used to that," Naruto said quietly, looking pleased. "When your father's the Hokage, a hero, and determined, he can get most things done."

"So no one has tried to assassinate you?" Gaara inquired, finally deigning to speak.

Naruto shrugged. "A few people here and there. It wasn't because I was a Jinchuriki but because my father has a lot of enemies. The ANBU always stopped them, though, so it's not really a big deal."

"Let me get this straight…" Kankuro said finally. "You're possessed by a demon but you're scared of my puppets?"

"Your evil, soulless puppets," Naruto corrected.

"And everyone's fine with having a demon container in their midst," Kankuro continued, ignoring him.

"We've been surrounded by worse," Sasuke replied casually.

"Yeah, demon possession really doesn't compare to the Flames of Youth," Sakura agreed.

"Dear God, this place is insane…"

----

"So how about the rookies?" Minato asked. "Kakashi, do you feel that your team is ready?"

"More than ready," Kakashi replied.

"They've only been out of the Academy for four months," Iruka protested.

Kakashi shrugged. "They're quick learners. Besides, C-ranks are really all they can do right now and those are mostly for Chuunin anyway."

"That wouldn't be a problem if you hadn't let them fail all the D-rank missions," Kurenai pointed out.

Kakashi crossed his arms. "You're just jealous because I don't have to supervise village chores anymore."

"I am not!" she insisted. "Although I also wish to enter my students."

"I am," Asuma confessed. "Getting Shikamaru to do more than show up to those is usually more trouble than it's worth. And getting Choji to do anything might be easy but it is expensive! And don't even get me started on Ino's nagging…I'll enter as well. I just hope I have enough to time to convince Shikamaru to show up…"

"Seriously, Iruka," Kakashi told the Academy Teacher. "If I make them do any more training, I honestly think they're going to revolt. Besides, this year it's in Konoha where we'll all be on hand to make sure things go smoothly and I'm sure Minato would rather kill the rival Genin himself than allow one of them to do any permanent damage to Naruto. What's the worst that could happen?"

"Famous last words…" Iruka murmured, beginning to get a very bad feeling indeed.

Chapter Text

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" Minato asked his son the morning of the Chuunin Exams.

"It doesn't matter if I wanted to or not," Naruto said grimly. "Kakashi threatened to make us train with Gai for a year if we don't."

Minato winced sympathetically. "Well, I just don't want you getting involved with something you can't handle."

"You don't think I can handle this?" Naruto asked, a little hurt.

Minato shook his head. "No, that's not it, it's just…this is dangerous. Really dangerous. You could die and I know you faced death on that A-rank mission you took, but Kakashi was there to protect you and now you're all on your own."

"I'm not all on my own," Naruto corrected. "I've got Sakura and Sasuke with me and we're going to kick ass."

"Is that so?" Minato asked, sounding amused.

"Believe it!" Naruto declared. "And besides, since I've recently achieved my life-long dream of having a bridge named after me, I need to make Chuunin to make progress on my other life-long dream of becoming Hokage."

Minato raised an eyebrow. "You had a bridge named after you? Was this in Wave? Do tell."

----

"Mom, Dad, I'm going to take the Chuunin Exams today so I won't be going on any missions for the next two months or so," Sakura announced.

Momoko looked puzzled. "You're taking more tests? I thought you would be done with that when you graduated."

"So did I," Sakura laughed. "But this is to see if I'm ready to be promoted."

"I'm sure you'll do fine," Keisuke told her confidently. "You've always been good at tests."

"Thanks," Sakura beamed, heading for the door. "I may not actually be home tonight or for the next week or so and if that's the case then it's because we're doing a survival test so don't freak out or anything."

"Good luck!" Momoko called after her daughter.

----

"Are you nervous?" Itachi asked.

Sasuke looked up from his breakfast. Since today was a big day, he was having tomatoes despite their status as usually-not-a-breakfast food. If Naruto could have ramen every day for breakfast, then Sasuke could have tomatoes occasionally. "No."

Itachi looked at him skeptically. "Really?"

"What's the worst that could happen?" Sasuke asked rhetorically.

"People have got to stop asking that," Itachi said, shaking his head ruefully. "And you could die, for one. Or fall into a coma. Or get permanently disabled. Or-"

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Sasuke interrupted a bit petulantly.

"Relax, Sasuke," Itachi told him with a small smile. "I'm not saying it will happen to you, just that it could happen at the exams. In fact, I'm sure you'll do just fine."

"Then why do you think I should be nervous?" Sasuke countered.

Itachi shrugged. "Everyone's nervous at their first Chuunin Exam, right?"

"Even you?" Sasuke asked, surprised.

"You do realize I was two years younger than you when I took it, right?" Itachi reminded his little brother.

"You still won," Sasuke pointed out.

"True, but even if you don't you could still make Chuunin. Just give them a good show," Itachi advised.

"I've got to go," Sasuke said, standing up and popping the last piece of tomato into his mouth.

Itachi stood up as well to poke him in the forehead. "Be good and don't fail."

----

"Hey, Kakashi, I was wondering something," Obito said slowly.

"What's that?" Kakashi replied.

"You know how Genin teams have to complete a minimum of eight missions in order to be eligible for the Chuunin Exams?" Obito began.

Kakashi nodded. "You wouldn't think just going shopping or babysitting a few times would qualify you, but then again I suppose that's why this is the first time in five years rookies are entering…"

"Your team took quite a few missions, I'll admit," Obito continued. "But they only ended up passing the Wave escort mission. Even if that was technically an A-rank mission, it still only counts as one. How in the world are they allowed to compete?"

Kakashi froze. "That's a damn good question. I suppose my team did find all the lost pets they were supposed to, even if Sasuke did end up traumatizing them, and since they didn't lose, maim, or kill the children they were watching those would count, even if they aren't allowed within ten feet of those missions anymore."

"Or it could just be blatant favoritism given that Naruto is Minato-Sensei's son, you are his student, and Sasuke is my cousin," Obito teased.

"We're going with the first one," Kakashi said firmly.

"So ready for the big exam?" Anko asked, coming up behind them.

"I believe my students are…properly motivated," Kakashi replied. "Plus it will let me off the hook as far as that 'punctuality' thing goes."

"You are NEVER going to be off the hook," Anko informed him seriously.

"Yeah, you think it's bad when you're dating or engaged to someone?" Obito asked rhetorically. "Wait until this is over and you get married. It's like Rin made it her mission in life to make sure I wind up where I need to be on time…"

"She's given me plenty of tips as an engagement present," Anko said cheerfully.

Kakashi groaned. "I knew I should have stayed single…"

"WHAT was that?" Anko asked, pulling out a kunai.

"I love you?" Kakashi offered weakly.

"That's what I thought," Anko said sweetly. "So who's proctoring the third exam? I heard Hayate was going to do it but realized that with his chronic coughing it might make his job difficult."

"I volunteered for that," Obito answered. "In fact, I was actually the one who convinced Hayate that it might be a problem. Proctors don't necessarily have a very large speaking role, especially for the tournament part of the exam, but in life or death situations the match has to be called quickly and if he's suffering from a coughing fit someone might die."

"That would make us look really stupid," Kakashi decided. "So you both are proctors, huh? I'm feeling kind of left out…"

"You lost your opportunity to proctor when you entered your kids into the exam," Anko told him. "Besides, the only part left would be if there were to be a preliminary round and you wanted to do that instead of Obito or the written exam part, but Ibiki really is the best choice for that."

"I don't know," Obito said thoughtfully. "While I would agree that Ibiki is far more intimidating than Kakashi, Kakashi would probably manage to piss them off and get them to lose their composure more easily, thus narrowing the candidates down. After all, all it takes is one idiot with an 'I'll never give up!' speech to get through Ibiki's final test and that wouldn't really work with the 'deal with Kakashi's eccentricities' final test."

"True…" Anko agreed. "It's a little late now, though, and Team 7 is in the exam. We should recommend that for the next time this is held in Konoha."

"You guys are the worst friends ever," Kakashi said flatly.

"But you'd be lost without us," Obito grinned.

"I could easily replace you with a rock," Kakashi insisted. A memorial rock, but still.

----

Team 7 walked onto the second floor to see a sizeable crowd standing around watching a mildly-henged Izumo and Kotetsu beating up Team Gai. How they thought that would be inconspicuous was anyone's guess.

Naruto, of course, went right up to the disguised Chuunin. "Excuse me, can you move?"

"Sorry, kid, we're weeding out the weak," Izumo told him.

"If you want to enter the exam room, you're going to have to go through us," Kotetsu agreed.

"Yeah, that's great, but you're blocking the way to the stairwell," Naruto shot back.

"Stairwell?" one of the grass nins who may or may not still be associated with Orochimaru repeated.

"Look, just because Konoha comes off as rather eccentric doesn't mean we have a different labeling system," Sakura told him heatedly.

"I applaud your dedication to weeding out those unworthy of becoming Chuunin, especially if you think that some of the applicants aren't actually capable of telling the difference between the numbers two and three," Sasuke added.

The genin surrounding them all suddenly found the floor and/or ceiling extremely fascinating.

"Well, I suppose your team at least passes," Izumo decided.

"Not that we would have expected otherwise from the stacked team," Kotetsu muttered.

"Oh, you only WISH your team had been as awesome as ours, undercover exam proctors!" Naruto declared.

"Did they say they were undercover exam proctors?" an Ame genin asked.

"…Gotta go," Kotetsu said as he and Izumo quickly left.

"Excuse me, what is your name?" Lee asked as he came up beside Sakura on the walk to the correct room.

"Haruno Sakura," Sakura replied. "And you are?"

"Rock Lee," Lee told her with a smile. "Would you like to go out with me? I'll protect you until I die!"

"That's certainly very thoughtful," Sakura told him. "Tragically, needing to be protected is one of my biggest pet peeves and my teammates and I decided that puberty would be a lot easier to handle if we didn't date anyone until we made Chuunin, so I'm going to have to decline."

"So…if you make Chuunin and I make Chuunin, we can go out?" Lee asked hopefully.

"If we both make Chuunin ask me again after I've gotten a chance to get to know you better," Sakura told him. "I'm not the kind of girl who will go out with someone because they're cute, cool, or strong without getting to know them first."

"Since when?" Ino asked, latching onto Sasuke. "You nearly ended our friendship because you didn't think friends could be rivals, remember?"

"Thankfully Naruto and Sasuke have long-since convinced me otherwise," Sakura said smoothly. "So you're in this exam too, Ino?"

"Yep," Ino nodded. "And that other team that graduated with us."

"Is it really that difficult to remember who we are?" Kiba demanded, also showing up with his team. "We only had classes with you for four years!"

"If my precious Sasuke-kun were on your team than I'm certain I would remember you," Ino sniffed.

"I'd be careful of dismissing Team 8, Ino," Naruto warned her. "They have Shino."

"So?" Ino said, not seeing a need for concern.

"He does bugs," Sakura explained. "It's…you don't want him on your bad side, let's just say."

"Ew," Ino made a face. "Bugs are so gross."

"Please do not be so troublesome as to let Shino hear you say that," Shikamaru advised her. "It would not end well for you."

"Sakura used to like that boy?" Lee pointed at Sasuke. "Then I shall challenge him to a fight in order to prove that I am a worthy competitor for her heart!"

"You'll do that by beating up my teammate before the Chuunin Exam starts?" Sakura asked skeptically.

"Your faith is truly touching," Sasuke said sarcastically. "As to the fight…I would, really, but I don't think anyone here needs a preview of my skills and unless you make it to the inevitable one-on-one portion of the exams, the simple truth is you will not be worth my time."

"Oh, I'll be there," Lee said determinedly.

"Are you planning on getting off anytime soon?" Sasuke asked irritably.

"Nope," Ino said cheerfully.

"Sakura, how mad would you be if I were to use-" Sasuke began.

"Don't even think about it," Sakura told him sternly. "Ino's my best friend, even if she is a fangirl."

"Fine," Sasuke grumbled and used a substitution jutsu instead.

"A log?" Ino complained. "No fair, Sasuke-kun!"

"Though for the record," Sasuke told her quietly. "Her fangirlism was never near as obnoxious as watching the competent Kunoichi who helped Naruto convince me to come back to Konoha revert to a silly little girl who would break her most important bonds for the sake of a pretty boy."

"Yeah, well…thanks for not letting me," Sakura said, a little embarrassed.

"So you're not a fangirl anymore?" Tenten asked.

"What? No, I outgrew that quite a while ago," Sakura explained.

"GOOD," Tenten said vehemently. "Because to any serious ninja a fangirl is just about the worst thing to be and I don't want to have to salvage the reputation of Konoha's Kunoichis all by myself."

"What about Hinata?" Sakura asked. "She doesn't like Sasuke."

Tenten raised her eyebrows. "Have you ever seen the way she looks at Naruto?"

"Point," Sakura conceded.

"Kiba, I think Choji wants to eat your dog, you should be careful with it," Hinata said quietly.

"What?" Kiba yelped. "Is that true?"

"…Maybe," Choji admitted. "I'm hungry!"

"Just eat one of your boxed lunches," Shikamaru advised him. "You brought over a dozen."

"But-but I might need those to fortify me in between exams," Choji protested.

"If you try and eat Akamaru, he could very well try and eat you back," Kiba warned.

"Can you all try not acting like you're five?" Neji asked, standing as far apart from the group as he could without being rude.

"I agree," Kabuto said, approaching them. "You guys should be more quiet. You're just out of the Academy, huh?"

"Who are you?" Shino asked.

"I'm Kabuto," Kabuto replied. "But don't worry about that. Look around you."

The future Konoha 11 plus Sasuke looked around. Quite a few people were glaring at them.

"Those guys behind you are from Amegakure. They have short tempers. Everyone is nervous about the exam. Quiet down before you cause a scene," Kabuto advised.

"If these people can't deal with a little noise then there is no way they are qualified to be Chuunin," Sasuke said coolly. "And if they start a fight they'll just get thrown out of the exams. I don't see any reason to keep it down."

"Hey, Kiba, is it just me or does this guy smell like snake?" Naruto asked.

Kiba sniffed. "You know, you're right; he does smell like snake."

"I do?" Kabuto asked, seemingly puzzled. "That's strange."

"I don't like snakes," Naruto told him. "Snakes remind me of vampires and vampires are evil."

"So is this your first time, too?" Ino asked. "No offense, but you look quite a bit older than us…"

"Oh, no, actually this is my seventh time," Kabuto told them, looking a little sheepish.

"Wow, you suck," Kiba said bluntly. "If I don't pass by five, I'm just going to resign myself to being a failure who can't beat a bunch of twelve and thirteen-year-olds and quit."

"It's not all bad," Kabuto insisted. "I know quite a bit about the exam and have ninja info cards on everyone here."

"How would your retaking the exam repeatedly help you get information on the people who are just now taking it for the first time?" Shikamaru asked lazily.

"Well, that's…does anybody want to see the cards?" Kabuto asked, holding them up.

"I do," Kankuro said as he walked up to them, Temari and Gaara not far behind him. He pointed at Naruto. "Tell me about him and his teammates."

Kabuto took three cards out of his deck. "First up is Namikaze Naruto. He's the Hokage's son, and is a Jinchuriki. He has very high ninjutsu and is above average in taijutsu though his genjutsu is almost non-existent," Kabuto said. "Then there is Uchiha Sasuke. He is one of three Uchiha to be left alive after the massacre four years ago. He has strong ninjutsu and taijutsu and exceptional genjutsu as well as already gaining the Sharingan eye and evolving it to its second level. Finally there is Haruno Sakura who is taking shifts at the hospital to be a medic nin with decent ninjutsu and taijutsu and very high genjutsu. Their sensei is 'Man Down' Kakashi and together they have…" he trailed off, looking at the cards in disbelief.

"What?" Kankuro growled.

"Together they have failed every D-rank mission they have ever been on and have been permanently banned from all future D-missions. They have one C-rank that had turned A-rank and successfully completed it," Kabuto finished, his voice somewhat shaky.

"Don't you have to have passed eight missions to take this exam?" Temari asked.

"Hokage's son, probably gets special treatment," Kankuro decided.

"How the hell did you manage to fail the D-rank missions? They are the easiest things in the world!" Kiba pointed out.

Naruto grinned proudly. "It took a great deal of effort planning, but we managed. And now we're banned for life!"

"You say that like it's a good thing," Ino said, eyeing him strangely.

"Well it IS quite the accomplishment," Sasuke informed her with a smirk. "We're the first team to ever be banned from the D-ranks."

"And we'll never, ever have to do any of them ever again," Sakura concluded, beaming.

"…I hate you guys," Kiba announced.

"No more D-ranks, huh?" Shikamaru asked. "If I plan out how to fail them, would you guys carry it out so we don't have to do them anymore?"

"In a heartbeat," Ino replied promptly.

"Would Asuma-sensei still take us out for barbecue?" Choji asked.

"I'm sure he'd be so thrilled to not have to supervise those chores that he would," Shikamaru assured him.

"Have I mentioned this place is full of crazy people?" Kankuro asked.

"I believe so," Temari answered.

"Well I would just like to reiterate that," Kankuro said.

"Who is he?" Hinata asked, pointing to Kankuro. "He doesn't seem very open-minded…"

"Let's see," Kabuto said, drawing another card. "That's Kankuro. He's the son of the Kazekage and has completed eight C-rank missions and one B-rank mission. I would say that's very impressive, but Sasuke's team did an A-rank. He mostly uses puppets in his fights."

"Evil Soulless Puppets?" Choji asked, eyes widening.

Sakura looked to Naruto in confusion, but he was currently hiding behind Shikamaru.

"Hide me!" he begged.

"This is so troublesome," Shikamaru sighed. "As long as I don't have to actually do anything…"

"Naruto's been back for a few years and at some point he gave everyone a huge lecture about why puppets were evil," Sasuke explained in a whisper. "I think that was when the girls were off picking flowers or something, though."

"It was more than just picking flowers!" Sakura hissed indignantly. "Although we did do that."

"How can you stand having such an evil brother?" Naruto asked Temari.

She shot a quick glance at Gaara. "Practice."

"Hey, whose side are you on, anyway?" Kankuro complained.

"I feel sorry for you," Naruto told Gaara frankly.

Gaara looked at him suspiciously. "Why?"

"Because your evil older brother hates everybody younger than him, of course," Naruto replied.

"I'm more than capable of handling his hatred," Gaara replied impassively.

"Doesn't make it right," Naruto insisted. "Seriously, how can he not love kids? They're adorable."

"Hey, Naruto, your friend smells like raccoons," Kiba announced.

"Better than smelling like evil like Kankuro," Gaara muttered.

Naruto started, then grinned. "My sentiments exactly!"

Chapter Text

"And remember, outside of the second task, killing equals disqualification so please wait to sake your bloodlust until after the exams," Ibiki finished explaining the exam's code of conduct.

"But Gaara wasn't disqualified last time because he fought me," Sasuke whispered to Sakura. "So how did he manage to not kill anyone during the preliminaries?"

Sakura thought back. "He fought Lee, remember? He crippled him and Lee had to undergo that life threatening surgery and rebuild all his skills from scratch."

Sasuke shook his head. "No, I had my own medical issues I was dealing with back then…"

"Instead of your current seating arrangements, you will be assigned a number," Ibiki explained. "Please form a single-file line."

Once again, everyone was split up and once again Naruto was seated next to a fellow rookie. Unlike before, however, it wasn't Hinata.

"YES!" Naruto cheered. "BEST SEAT EVER!"

"Why? Where are you seated?"Sakura asked.

"I'm right next to Shino!" Naruto explained happily.

"And that makes it the 'best seat ever' why?" Sakura asked again because she knew that, curious or not, Sasuke was never going to.

"Of course," Naruto nodded. "Shino does bugs, after all."

"We know that," Sasuke felt the need to remind him.

"So you should see why I'm loving my seat arrangement," Naruto shot back.

"Just tell us," Sakura sighed.

"Termites are a kind of bug," Naruto informed them.

"You mean…"

"Yep," Naruto nodded gleefully. "Shino is my ultimate Kankuro defense!"

"For the love of God, you do not need protection from me!" Kankuro burst out from a few feet away. Naruto was rather loud, after all, so he'd heard half of the conversation at any rate. "Although if you keep this up…"

"You're threatening me while trying to convince me that you're not evil?" Naruto asked incredulously. "Temari, Gaara, I applaud you for staying sane as long as you have."

Temari's eyebrows rose. "And now my sanity is being compared to Gaara and not in a 'maybe you should spend less time in the sun' kind of way…"

"Alright, find your seats," Ibiki ordered.

As they were finding their seats, Sakura pulled Ino aside. "Ino, if you use your jutsu on me, I'm going to give you an impromptu haircut like mine. If you use it on Sasuke, he'll probably go on a revenge-date with some other girl."

"Aren't you going to warn me off copying from Naruto?" Ino asked, shuddering slightly at Sakura's threats.

"I would," Sakura acknowledged. "But since if you tried it with him the Kyuubi could very well eat you so I think I'll let you use your own judgment."

Looking distinctly pale, Ino resolved to pick a different team to cheat from.

Team Seven paid little attention as Ibiki attempted to psyche them out and hint that they needed to cheat while advising them not to do so carelessly.

Sakura wondered briefly why, seeing as how they practically advertised that you could cheat four times with relative impunity, anyone would cheat more than that. Granted, that meant getting only four answers, but all that was important was making sure you didn't get zero. Or all that was SUPPOSED to be important.

"Begin," Ibiki said and the race was on.

Twenty minutes into the exam and the competent ones were just figuring out that they were supposed to be cheating when Sakura threw down her pen triumphantly. "Done!" she called, wisely turning over her paper and glaring pointedly at Ino to minimize the chance of anyone being able to cheat on her.

Sasuke and Naruto said nothing but started writing faster.

Another ten minutes into the exam and Sasuke also put down his pen after thoughtfully penning some advice to the examiners. 'If you want to make us cheat, you should try giving us some harder questions.' Granted, only Sakura – and, he supposed, Shikamaru if he could have been bothered – had been able to answer the questions as genin, but for those who had already passed the exam it had just been a matter of doing the work.

"Damnit," Naruto growled, finishing up five minutes after that. "Why am I always last?"

"Because you suck," Sasuke said bluntly.

"Quiet down back there or we're taking points," Ibiki warned. They probably should take points anyway as the conversation could very well be coded, but the girl had only said one word and both boys had only started to speak after they had finished.

Right after Naruto finished, Kankuro suddenly had to go to the bathroom and what Naruto's puppet-senses very clearly declared to be a puppet handcuffed him and escorted him there. It was creative, he supposed, and audacious but given the fact it had puppet-lines on its face, how could Kankuro honestly not realize that he was being allowed to get away with it? Or was that part of the 'lousy security' Orochimaru had convinced them Konoha had in order to persuade them to invade?

Finally, Ibiki seemed to decide enough teams had been weeded out. "Now, for the tenth question. Let me preface this by saying that you don't actually have to take the question. Once you agree to take it, though, you have to answer it."

"What happens if we choose not to take it?" Temari asked curiously.

"Then you fail, obviously," Naruto told her, enjoying his complete and total lack of desperation. "Otherwise what would be the point of having a tenth question if you didn't need to answer it and there were no penalties for not doing so?"

"Indeed, the boy whose teammates managed to beat him in the exam is right," Ibiki said.

"Hey, I did it without cheating, how many other people can say that?" Naruto demanded.

Kabuto raised his hand.

"You're practically ancient," Naruto said dismissively, "and this is your seventh time so you don't count."

"Not only will your teammates fail if you fail, but if you do take the tenth question and get it wrong then you will never be able to become a Chuunin. Ever. Your teammates, however, will be able to reapply in sixth months," Ibiki told them.

"Didn't Naruto say that that Kabuto guy took the exam seven times, though?" Kiba questioned. "How does that work?"

"I haven't been a proctor at Kabuto's other exams. This year, I am so I can do basically whatever I want!" Ibiki declared, looking like he was about to burst into maniac laughter at any moment.

No one wanted to be the first to quit, so no one said anything for a minute.

"I'm out," one of the plants finally announced. Looking pissed, his 'teammates' followed him to the doorway.

"Me too!" another plant said.

"And me!" an actual genin disqualified themselves.

It was kind of tiring, watching team after team that had travelled all this way to Konoha back out at the first sign of difficulty.

Finally, only seventeen teams remained including, of course, the four from Konoha, Kabuto's team, Gaara's team, the potentially-secretly-Orochimaru team, and the Oto team.

"So are the fifty-one of you that's left absolutely sure that you want to do this?" Ibiki asked them seriously. For about the thirtieth time.

"Look, your cunning plan to annoy us into quitting is pretty brilliant, I'll admit," Naruto said tiredly, "but our Sensei makes annoying people a hobby and already threatened to make us train with Gai in the morning until he showed up if we don't pass."

Ibiki blinked. "Doesn't he start training at 4:30?"

"The better to get the most out of the youthful hours when the sun is just rising!" Lee confirmed excitedly.

"We can't take that for a year," Sasuke confided. "So no matter how many times you ask us, we're not giving up."

The exam proctor winced sympathetically.

"That's the spirit," Anko throwing herself through the window and throwing various weapons at the Genin still seated. "How else will you get your revenge?"

"I really wish you wouldn't encourage him, Anko," Naruto said, shaking his head.

"There's nothing wrong with a little encouragement when it comes to reaching your goals," Anko replied innocently.

"There is when it's Sasuke…" Sakura muttered.

"Anko, I wasn't done with the test yet," Ibiki told her tersely. "Since the first portion of the exam is clearly over though, you guys pass."

"Huh?" Ino gasped. "Why?"

Ibiki opened his mouth to explain but Anko beat him to the punch. "You'll take too long," she told him frankly. "You were supposed to cheat unless you're some kind of genius or have been a genin far too many years. If you sucked at cheating and got caught being obvious five times, you were out. If you agreed to take the exam or hypothetical 'dangerous mission 'then you at least have the broadest characteristics of a chuunin and if you're too scared to take it, then you don't deserve the title."

"Who are you?" Kankuro demanded. "And why did you throw deadly projectiles at us?"

"I'm Anko and I'll be your second examination proctor," Anko announced. "As for why…well, if you let it hit you then you wouldn't be ready to be chuunin."

"So you tried to kill us?" Kankuro repeated.

"Oh, good point, you haven't signed the waivers yet…" Anko mused. "Well, follow me and we'll get right to that."

"Is it too late to quit?" Kabuto asked.

"Yes," Anko snapped. "But don't worry, you'll get a second chance after the second exam."

"That won't be very helpful if we die," Kabuto pointed out.

"Then don't die. Honestly, kid, if you're this worried maybe you should have quit while you were a head a long time ago…" Anko muttered, heading off towards the Forest of Death and expecting the chuunin hopefuls to be following her.

----

"So how do you think they're doing?" Minato asked.

Kakashi looked up from his ever-present book. Apparently the various changes they made (Minato being alive, Naruto being a part of his life, forcing him to actually spend time in Konoha) had made enough of an impact on Jiraiya that his books were different. Not to say they were really any better or worse – and definitely not more appropriate – but it was nice not to have to wait until he they reached the point where the author had originally died to get some new material. "My minions?"

"They aren't your minions, Kakashi, they're your students," Minato said, trying to look stern and failing.

"Really? Because back when Obito and Rin joined us to form a team you were singing a different song," Kakashi countered.

"That was Jiraiya-sensei who called you guys my minions and then he said something about how he was going to write a spy smut novel," Minato reminded him.

"You didn't correct him," Kakashi insisted.

"It's Jiraiya-sensei," Minato pointed out. "Would correctly him really have done any good?"

"I supposed not," Kakashi conceded. "That was a good book he wrote about that. Although I was a bit put-out that the character that was based on me didn't get the girl."

"Well, to be fair you didn't get the girl, so if he wanted to be accurate he had to have Obito's character end up with her," Minato said levelly.

"True to life?" Kakashi snorted. "Have you ever read those books, Minato-sensei?"

"As the Hokage who must set an example for his people, I'm afraid I cannot answer that question one way or another," Minato said virtuously.

"Yeah, 'set an example' alright…" Kakashi shook his head. "You know, there's a reason Naruto calls every other shinobi he meets a closet pervert."

"I'm starting to think there's a correlation between ninja power and perversion," Minato confessed. "As the only other way to explain the fact that all powerful ninja are raging perverts is some sort of societal problem I might be forced to address."

"I can definitely see the connection," Kakashi said quickly.

"You just want to be able to read your books in peace," Minato accused.

Kakashi merely shrugged. "Oh, that's right, I never did answer you about my minions. I think they'll be fine."

"Are you sure? Ibiki is the first examiner, you know," Minato said anxiously.

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "He's not going to torture them without a waiver and Anko said she's handing them out at the second exam, so don't worry."

"There's always psychological torture," Minato pointed out.

"Your son doesn't actually believe in giving up and making him doubt himself will just make him come back ten times harder," Kakashi assured his mentor.

"I know but I'm still not sure he was ready. I mean, a lot of the exam is about teamwork as solo missions are usually a Jounin-only thing and he's known Sasuke for years so they should be able to work together alright, but what about the other one? Haruno Sakura?" Minato asked. "He never really interacted with her before you wanted her on your team."

"You met her at the dinner, remember?" Kakashi asked. "It might have taken awhile, but she and the boys have the whole camaraderie thing down pat."

"Taken awhile?" Minato repeated. "They've been a team for four months."

"And what a four months it has been," Kakashi said.

"So she's not a fangirl then? Most Kunoichi I've seen have been at that age. Although by the time of their first Chuunin Exam they are usually over it," Minato acknowledged.

"She's over it as well," Kakashi replied. "Rin was never a fangirl even when she did have a crush on me."

Minato shrugged. "I think it was the war."

"Let's hope we can keep the peace as long as we can," Kakashi said sobering. "Especially with all the sacrifices we've had to make."

Minato nodded his agreement. "I agree with you that the Chuunin Exam is an excellent time to strike with all the foreign nationals running about and hopefully our increased security will be enough to make sure that if anyone tries something they won't succeed."

----

"One final word of advice," Anko said after she finished explaining the rules and mildly molesting Kiba who couldn't keep his mouth shut and got a kunai wound to the cheek that she just had to lick. "Don't die."

"That's good advice," Naruto decided.

"Since we didn't sign the waiver yet, can I sue her?" Kiba wondered.

"That depends if the waiver says that it covers actions that happened before you signed it," Shikamaru told him. "Read the fine print."

Kiba looked slightly panicked. "On the other hand, I'm sure I can just challenge Naruto when this is all over and his Therapy Jutsu will get me past this. His sensei's engaged to her, so I'm sure he's gotten mildly molested before…"

Naruto shuddered. "I don't want to talk about it…So, Gaara, what did you think of the first part of the test?"

"It was easy."

"It was," Naruto agreed. "I didn't even need to cheat."

"Which is fortunate as it wouldn't have occurred to you to do so anyway," Sasuke pointed out.

"That was one time!" Naruto protested.

"And your morals wouldn't have let you do it even if it had occurred to you," Sakura added.

"You know, I am this close to defecting to Gaara's team and letting you deal with Kankuro for five days," Naruto threatened.

"Oh, please do!" Kankuro pleaded.

"Coward," Temari accused.

"You can't just defect to Suna, Naruto," Sakura said, shaking her head.

"Why not?" Naruto demanded.

"Your dad would probably be pissed seeing as how he's the head of Konoha," she pointed out.

"So? What's a little teenage rebellion?" Naruto asked rhetorically.

"If you're not there and we should meet That Man then I cannot guarantee Sakura would be enough to stop me from murdering him on the spot," Sasuke contributed.

Naruto winced. "Sorry, Gaara. Maybe next time."

Gaara, who hadn't expressed an opinion about Naruto changing teams one way or another and wasn't sure that was even allowed, blinked at him. "Next time? I thought you intended to pass."

"…Jounin exams?"

"ARE there Jounin exams?" Sasuke asked.

"I have no idea," Naruto confided.

"Do you guys even live in Konoha?" Sakura asked incredulously.

"Everyone head to your gate," Anko's voice rang through the crowd.

"Gotta go guys," Naruto said, waving goodbye to the Sand Siblings. "Good luck Temari."

"Why's that?" she demanded. "You think I'm weak?"

"Oh, God no," Naruto shook his head. "But you're going to be stuck in there for five days with your psychotic younger brother. Still, at least you'll have Gaara."

"Okay, first I'm evil, now I'm psychotic…I am NEVER coming back here again," Kankuro swore.

Gaara, meanwhile, was considering building a vacation home there. These people were clearly a lot saner than those he'd left behind in Suna.

Chapter Text

"I've got to go to the bathroom," Naruto announced once they had been in the forest for about an hour. "Later."

"Wait, I suggest we come up with a codeword first," Sasuke said. "In case someone tries to impersonate you."

Naruto made a face. "You just want to try and trick me with one of those stupid epic poems again, don't you?"

"Stupid epic poems?" Sakura repeated incredulously. "It was only five or six lines!"

"Well it seemed longer," Naruto said defensively. "And someone might be spying on us so there's no point."

"Then what do you suggest we do?" Sasuke asked sarcastically. "Ask you something only you would know?"

"Actually, all things considered, that would probably be the best plan," Sakura mused. "It wouldn't even have to be personal just recent. We do have an advantage after all."

"I'm glad we've worked that out," Naruto said, heading for the bushes. "Again, later."

"So do you think we'll run into that snake pedophile?" Sakura asked conversationally while they waited.

Sasuke sighed. "I really wish you wouldn't call him that."

"And I really wish you hadn't run off with him," Sakura countered. "But you know what they say: you can't always get what you want."

"When are you and Naruto going to drop the whole 'Sasuke had an affair with Orochimaru' thing?" Sasuke demanded.

Sakura raised an eyebrow. "That depends. Was that an admission?"

"What? No!" Sasuke protested.

"So you're still in denial then," Sakura concluded.

"I'm not in denial!" Sasuke insisted. He paused. "Although I do realize that that in and of itself constitutes as a denial."

Sakura laughed. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't. And I'll drop it when you drop the whole 'Sakura's useless' thing."

"I would love to drop that, I really would," Sasuke said innocently. "And I will. The minute you actually do something."

Swiftly, Sakura pulled out a kunai. "I can do something right here if you'd like," she mock-threatened.

"Sakura-chan, there's really no need to be so violent, is there?" Naruto asked, stepping out of the bushes. "Especially towards our teammate during the exam?"

"He'll be fine," Sakura said dismissively. "How long did it-"

"Wait, I'll handle this," Sasuke interrupted. "Tell me about our first kiss."

Naruto turned red. "Sasuke! Don't try to trick me! 'When was our first kiss'…honestly, you know we never did."

"Wrong answer," Sasuke said smoothly, throwing a shuriken at the boy he had decided wasn't his teammate. "The day we graduated we kissed. Technically."

"Oh, right," Sakura remembered. "I gave Naruto a concussion."

"Very clever of you to figure it out," not-Naruto said, turning back into his real form.

"Not really," Sasuke said easily, watching as Sakura crept around behind their would-be attacker. "You're just really bad at impersonating people. Since it was an embarrassing moment for us both, I could easily see Naruto denying the event ever happened, but you didn't even try."

"I-" the boy began before feeling a tap on his shoulder. Automatically, he turned around in time to see Sakura's fist flying towards his face.

Sakura reached down to check their unconscious opponent for a scroll. "He doesn't have one," she reported after her search was complete. "He probably left it with his teammates while he played infiltration."

"Smart move," Sasuke remarked.

"Yeah," Sakura agreed. "And guess who finally did something?"

Sasuke snorted. "Took you long enough."

"Hey guys, I'm back," Naruto announced.

"Hi Naruto, how many times have I kicked your ass?" Sasuke asked.

"Oh, that so didn't count!" Naruto replied hotly. "You were using your drag form!"

"My…drag form?" Sasuke repeated uncertainly.

"Yeah," Naruto nodded. "You know, the one you got from the hickey."

"That was my curse seal form! You could even call it my demon form if you wanted to. It is NOT a drag form," Sasuke said firmly.

"Are you sure?" Naruto asked innocently. "Because I could have sworn I saw lipstick."

"That's him alright," Sakura giggled. "So, Naruto, what would you have said if we asked about the first time you and Sasuke kissed?"

Naruto turned red. "That never happened!"

"Really? Because I seem to remember-" Sakura began.

"NEVER HAPPENED!" Naruto cried out, sounding almost desperate.

Sakura shook her head in amusement. "Aright, alright…"

Suddenly they were assailed by projectile weapons in the form of leaves.

"Oh for the love of…we just took out someone," Naruto complained as he took cover.

"Oh, don't even start, you weren't even there!" Sakura snapped as she headed off in a different direction to do the same.

"You guys just play around over there. I'll take care of them myself," the ninja in the middle said.

Sasuke sought out the teammate closest to him – Sakura – once the attack was over. "What did I tell you right before ditching you?"

" 'Thank you'," Sakura said softly.

"Okay, now for-" Sasuke started to say.

"Not so fast," Sakura cut in. "That was vague enough it could have meant anything so answer me this: who did you attack the Summit to get at?"

"Danzo," Sasuke practically growled.

"Hey guys," Naruto said cheerfully as he ran up to them.

"What did you tell Tsunade-sama after your godfather died?" Sakura asked him.

Naruto gave her a puzzled look. "Jiraiya's not dead."

"Wrong answer," Sakura told him flatly.

"So you figured it out," fake Naruto number two shrugged as he melted back into his current form. "That won't be enough to save you."

"EAT THIS YOU STUPID SNAKE!" Naruto shouted out from a little ways away from them. "RASENGAN!"

"There goes a giant snake, I'm sure," Sakura noted.

"We're both after a scroll, right? You have an earth scroll and I have a heaven one," the imposter said, lifting the scroll to his lips.

"Wait," Sasuke said suddenly. "I know you! You're Orochimaru of the Sannin!"

Orochimaru paused and smirked. "Very impressive, Sasuke-kun."

"Don't call Sasuke that, you pedophile!" Sakura said angrily.

"So not the time," Sasuke told her.

"I am NOT a pedophile," Orochimaru insisted, sounding offended. "Why do people keep saying that?"

"Oh, I don't know, maybe it's your tendency to seek out young boys, give them a hickey, and then take them to live with you?" Sakura suggested sarcastically.

"They aren't hickeys, they're seals and I'm interested in their powers and bloodlines not their bodies!" Orochimaru hissed. "Well, that's not quite true, but I'm not out to molest them!"

"You give them the 'seals' via sucking on their neck," Sakura pointed out. At Orochimaru's startled look, she explained, "We know Anko."

"Orochimaru," Sasuke growled, drawing attention back to him. "You killed-"

"Hey guys, I'm back. Again," Naruto informed them, bounding up to them.

"Timing, Naruto, God we've talked about this," Sasuke complained. "When someone's in the middle of a dramatic moment, don't interrupt unless you're going to add to the drama or if they're evil and really pissing you off!"

"Sorry," Naruto apologized. "I can go back and wait until you're done if you want."

Sasuke gave a put-upon sigh. "Don't bother now that you're here. Just keep quiet and let me do this, okay?"

"Okay," Naruto said agreeably. "Just try and keep the sexual tension to a minimum, okay?"

Sasuke twitched and opened his mouth to say something about how he and Orochimaru didn't have any sexual tension when he stopped suddenly and smirked. "Why?" he asked instead. "Jealous?"

"Bastard," Naruto accused.

"Not an answer," Sasuke pointed out.

"If you guys don't hurry this up than I'm going to tell Kiba about this," Sakura threatened. "Hell, I might do that anyway."

Paling at the thought of telling the one guy who persisted in believing that they were secretly in love about their current conversation, both boys abruptly stopped arguing.

Sasuke cleared his throat and turned back to Orochimaru who was just staring at them in disbelief. Clearly, he didn't get ignored by preteens who knew who he was very often. "My name," he said dramatically, "is Uchiha Sasuke. You killed my family. Prepare to die."

"I did not!" Orochimaru burst out unexpectedly.

"…Pardon?" Sasuke asked.

"I did not kill the Uchiha. I haven't killed an Uchiha in years!" Orochimaru claimed.

"My family died years ago," Sasuke reminded him.

"But I didn't do it! Why doesn't anyone ever believe me?" Orochimaru demanded.

"Possibly because you said 'What's this? ANOTHER Uchiha? I was so afraid that I had managed to kill all of them so this boy would be my only option as a host, but now I see that there is a spare! How wonderful. This is getting a little crowded, so I'll take my leave now, but never forget…I, Orochimaru of the Sannin, WILL be back to steal your body, mark my words'," Naruto told him helpfully.

"I guess he could have managed a password after all," Sakura murmured to herself. "Ah well, that still carries the risk of being overheard."

"That wasn't me! I was nowhere near Konoha that night!" Orochimaru insisted.

"There's a large crowd of witnesses that say otherwise," Sasuke said flatly.

"They showed up to see what? Your brother and 'I' alone amongst the corpses? How do you know he didn't do it?" Orochimaru challenged.

Sasuke laughed bitterly. "What, you think Itachi killed everyone? I'm sure next you'll say he was ordered to do so because, let's see, they were planning a coup."

"I don't know what happened because I was not there," Orochimaru said, clearly getting frustrated. "I was framed!"

"Why would anyone frame you?" Sasuke asked, sounding skeptical.

"I don't know but I do not appreciate being known as the one to wipe out such a valuable bloodline," Orochimaru announced.

"Does that mean you're after either my body or my brother's?" Sasuke demanded.

Orochimaru tilted his head and smiled. "Now that you mention it…yes."

"I see," Sasuke said staring Orochimaru straight in the eye. "Let me tell you what I think of your little proposal," he said slowly as he activated his Mangekyou Sharingan. "Tsukuyomi."

In less than five seconds, Orochimaru crumpled to the ground.

"Did you really just beat him?" Sakura asked dubiously.

"I did indeed," Sasuke sounded smug as he quickly cast the jutsu to counteract the Mangekyou's corrosive tendencies.

"Total cop-out," Naruto complained.

"To be fair," Sasuke admitted, "he probably didn't have any experience with the Sharingan if Madara is still pretending not to exist and definitely wouldn't expect me to have the Mangekyou Sharingan. From what I can tell, this is how Itachi beat Orochimaru when he went after him before leaving Akatsuki. Should we face him again, it will not be so easy."

"Sweet, he has a heaven scroll!" Naruto cheered, picking the aforementioned item up.

"Give that to me, you'll just lose it," Sasuke insisted, snatching the scroll from Naruto.

Naruto glared at him. "You suck!"

Sasuke was about to reply when Sakura forestalled another argument with a simple sing-song-y, "Kiba!"

"Do you think we should contact someone and let them know?" she asked seriously.

Sasuke shrugged. "Why should we? They figured it out before and they can figure it out again. Besides, he should be out for awhile. And we really don't want to risk getting disqualified for contacting them."

Looking reluctant, Sakura nonetheless agreed to keep moving.

"So…" Naruto said once that was settled. "What did you do to him anyway?"

"He gets to live through that time Ino and Sakura managed to drag me along with them on a shopping expedition for seventy-two hours straight," Sasuke said grimly.

"It wasn't that bad!" Sakura protested.

Naruto shuddered, ignoring her. "You're evil."

"I know."

----

"So which of the genin did you molest this time?" Kakashi questioned his girlfriend over lunch. "It wasn't Naruto again, was it? Because Minato-sensei's kind of getting concerned about that."

"I do not molest them!" Anko insisted.

Kakashi simply waited.

"It might have been the dog boy," she grudgingly admitted. "But in my defense, he was being an idiot."

"I really hope that's covered by the waiver," Kakashi said.

Anko shrugged. "If these kids are agreeing to die then I'm sure they won't put up too much of a fuss about what some might call being overly forward."

"Or molestation," Kakashi translated.

Anko ignored him. "Besides, that Nara boy told the dog boy that he would have to actually read the waiver in order to see if he could sue and dog boy decided he'd rather just make Naruto 'help him through his issues' later." She scoffed, "Issues. Please. A couple more years and he'll be begging for someone to lick him."

"Someone who really shouldn't be you as you're twice his age and my fiancé," Kakashi pointed out.

"Don't worry," Anko assured him. "I have no interests in dogs."

Kakashi gave her a wounded look.

"Oh, come off it. Dog summons are different," Anko told him. She threw the last of her dango sticks at the same tree where she'd thrown all the others. "Perfect leaf pattern!" she beamed.

"How long did it take you to learn how to do that?" Kakashi wondered.

Anko shrugged. "A couple of weeks. When I was younger I went through a period where I refused to eat anything but dango and since I practiced every time I ate it, I got really good, really fast."

"Kind of like Naruto and his ramen obsession," Kakashi noted.

"Yeah, but he seemed to tone it down quite a bit when he turned eight," Anko mused. "I always thought that was kind of strange."

"Well, trauma can do strange things," Kakashi offered lamely.

"Big trouble, Anko-sama," one of the Chuunin examiners announced as he appeared on the scene with a poof of smoke.

"Mozuku?" Anko asked. "What happened?"

"Bodies, three of them. And they're…weird," Mozuku told her.

"Weird how?" Anko demanded.

"Maybe…maybe you'd better come see for yourself," Mozuku said hesitantly.

"I'll come, too," Kakashi said immediately.

Making their way to the site where the bodies had been discovered, they saw several of the examiners gathered around the corpses.

"After examining their papers and personal items, they seem to be the hidden grass shinobi who were entered in this exam but as you can see, they have no faces. They are blank...as if they were melted off," Kotetsu explained.

Anko looked horrified. "Show me the pictures of these three people!"

The chuunin scrambled to do as she requested.

"Are you okay?" Kakashi asked her quietly.

"He's back," Anko replied just as quietly. "The last time I saw him he had just wiped out the Uchiha and was vowing to steal the body of either an eight-year-old kid or a thirteen-year-old one. How could I possibly be okay?"

"My mask had a feeling this would happen," Kakashi said, looking deadly serious. "Of course, it seemed farfetched, so I really couldn't tell anybody…"

"Your mask," Anko repeated.

"That's what I said," Kakashi confirmed.

"What, is it psychic now?" she asked incredulously.

"I don't know, do you want me to ask it?" Kakashi asked dryly. "It either won't answer so it won't do any good or it will and I might need to take Minato-sensei up on that long-standing offer of therapy…"

"Why haven't you if he's so concerned?" Anko wondered.

"Well there's no point, is it?" he replied rhetorically. "We can't talk about anything confidential and that's where half of our various issues come from. What we need are ninja therapists."

"Like Obito," Anko supplied. "Or Naruto when he gets older."

Once the pictures were in her hand, her mood did not improve. "Damn. So even then…before the exam, I saw him. He was talking about his bloodlust and he kept using his tongue like an extra appendage. I should have known! I mean, seriously, who else does that?"

"You probably would if you could," Kakashi muttered.

"True," Anko admitted. "But I'm not part-snake like he seems to be nowadays. This is bad guys, someone go tell Hokage-sama that Orochimaru's back and has infiltrated the exam. Send some ANBU captains to the forest of death. I'm going after him right now!"

"We're going after him," Kakashi corrected.

Anko didn't bother to argue; she just lead the way into the forest.

----

"Hey look, it's Gaara!" Naruto said excitedly. "Hey Gaara!"

Gaara greeted the new arrival with a nod. "Naruto."

"Oh, so you got another scroll, too?" Sakura asked. "Is it the one you needed?"

Temari, who was in the process of retrieving the scroll, quickly checked. "Yeah, it is."

"Do you guys want to walk back to the tower with us?" Naruto offered. "It will be fun."

"Do you guys NOT see all the blood lying around and the crushed corpses strewn about?" Kankuro demanded.

"Of course we do," Sasuke told him. "Why?"

"That doesn't, oh I don't know, BOTHER you?" Kankuro asked.

"We're ninja," Sasuke shrugged. "Besides, we signed the waiver."

"What will it take to convince you that my brother is evil?" Kankuro demanded.

Gaara's lips thinned a little at that, but he needn't have worried.

"Evil puppet guy, it's not very nice to try and use poor Gaara as a scapegoat to try and make us forget how evil you are," Naruto rebuked.

"Why aren't you trying to defend me?" Kankuro demanded of his sister.

She shrugged. "I've come to the conclusion that Konoha is just insane and besides, Gaara hasn't actually shown any sings of wanting to kill them and that can only be a good thing in my book."

Kankuro groaned theatrically, but let it go.

Nevertheless, as they made their way to the tower together, Temari pulled Naruto to the side. "So, just between us, do you really think Kankuro's evil and/or crazy?"

"He wears makeup and a cat-suit," Naruto said flatly.

"Point," Temari acknowledged. "What about the 'evil' part?"

Naruto grinned at her. "Does it really matter? I'm not planning on letting up either way."

Temari sighed. "I suppose not."

It figured that Gaara would manage to accidentally befriend the craziest people around. Or at least, she HOPED they were the craziest.

----

A few hours later, after braving the perils of tigers and snakes, Anko and Kakashi finally stumbled upon the still-comatose Orochimaru.

"…I guess someone else took him out," Anko said eventually.

"Looks like whoever it is left a note," Kakashi remarked, picking up the paper that had been folded twice and placed on Orochimaru's chest. Unfolding it, he read, 'Dear responsible Konoha ninja, congrats on actually getting here before That Man recovered from my Tsukuyomi. I would like to take this time to thank both Itachi and Naruto as I could not have beaten him without them. Itachi, of course, taught me how to use the Mangekyou Sharingan and Naruto died for me. Sakura, as per usual, did nothing. But she did punch someone earlier. –Sasuke."

Chapter Text

"Hey, since you can summon people, why have we only seen this used during the exam?" Naruto wondered once they were successfully back at the tower. "I mean, I suppose my dad does something sort of similar with his special kunai, but still, you'd think something that useful would be utilized more."

"What, you mean like 'why can't you have a summoning contract with a person'?" Sakura asked. At Naruto's nod, she replied, "Probably because unlike summons, people don't want to have to drop everything and bail you out of a battle. A better question is why there's even an Oto since Orochimaru didn't get kicked out of his little criminal club."

Naruto shrugged. "Clearly he likes the idea of ruling a village. Konan and Nagato both run one and even if it's not exactly a village from what I can tell, it might benefit the Akatsuki anyway. Besides, they've never come across as a very tight-knit group anyway."

"Let's just hurry this up," Sasuke said, opening both scrolls then tossing them away.

"Hey guys, long time no see," Iruka greeted them as he appeared in a poof of smoke. "Let's see, you finished the exam…" Iruka trailed off as he glanced at his watch. "In six hours? No one finishes the exam in six hours!"

"They did," Sasuke said, pointing to the Sand Siblings who were talking to their own summoned Chuunin: an apparently not-evil Mizuki.

"I suppose," Iruka said slowly. "Still, congratulations! Not only did you make it past the second round of the exams on your first try, but you did it ridiculously fast as well. The test doesn't end for another four days so you'll need to report back here then to receive instructions about the third and final exam and compete preliminary matches if too many teams pass. You're lucky that you finished so quickly as you'll be in top form while everyone else is worn out from their time in the forest."

"If they wanted time to recuperate, they shouldn't have dawdled," Naruto said decisively.

"I'm not sure them 'dawdling' is the reason they're taking so long…" Iruka told him.

"So can we can just go?" Sakura asked.

"Almost," Iruka said. "The reason I was called here was to help you to understand the Chuunin motto, written by the Sandaime Hokage himself."

"The Chuunin motto?" Sakura asked politely.

"If you lack Heaven, seek wisdom, be prepared. Gain knowledge and prepare yourself for the missions. If you lack Earth, run in the fields, seek advantages," Iruka recited. "These rules will guide a person's extremes. Do you guys know what that means?"

"If we say no do we still pass?" Naruto asked.

Iruka nodded. "Yes. But tell me anyway."

"You need to be well-versed in mind and body and so if you're weak in one of the areas then you need to work to improve yourself so your missions will go smoother," Sakura explained.

"Very good, Sakura," Iruka praised. "So remember: you need to come back here in four days. And be careful, you know I worry about you guys."

"You can worry all you like," Sasuke told him. "But you'll see how capable you are when we wipe the floor with everybody and become Chuunin."

Looking rather sentimental, Iruka smiled at them. "I'll hold you to that."

"VICTORY IS OURS!" Kiba shouted, running into the tower, his two teammates trailing along behind him.

"Kiba?" Sakura asked, surprised. "How did you guys finish so quickly?"

"How did you?" Shino countered.

"We got lucky and ran into someone who had the scroll we needed right away," Sakura replied.

"So did we," Hinata informed them. "Well…in a way. We found it in a clearing where there was a lot of blood and body parts everywhere."

"You didn't check to see if there were any other scrolls to help eliminate the competition?" Kankuro asked his sister.

"I was going to!" she insisted. "But then the crazy Konoha genin showed up and I forgot about it."

"So I guess you're with me tonight," Kiba told Sasuke.

Sasuke blinked. "Do tell me how you came to that conclusion."

"My parents told my sister and I that under no circumstances less dire than an outright invasion or the death of the Hokage were we to disturb them on their anniversary today so my sister's having dinner with your brother. I thought I'd be busy with the test, but since I'm not, I'm going to tag along. I guess that would make you the fourth wheel," Kiba smirked.

"Someone up there really hates me, don't they?" Sasuke asked rhetorically.

"Not nearly as much as they should, though," Sakura pointed out.

"What? Sasuke's hanging out with Kiba tonight? No fair!" Naruto complained. "I want to do something…hey, I know! Gaara, do you want to have dinner at my house tonight?"

Gaara just blinked at the unexpected invite.

"Are you sure that's the best idea?" Temari spoke up.

"Oh, you're invited too," Naruto assured her. "And…the evil puppet guy can come too, I suppose. I wouldn't want to be rude, after all."

"No, I'm sure you wouldn't," Kankuro muttered.

"But NO PUPPETS," Naruto warned. "If you bring them, I simply cannot guarantee they'll survive the night."

"You know, if nothing else Gaara's never threatened to kill my puppets before," Kankuro whispered to Temari.

"No, but isn't threatening to kill us enough?" she whispered back.

"We'll have to ask our sensei-" Temari began.

"We'll be there," Gaara cut her off.

"Great!" Naruto said enthusiastically. "My father's the Hokage, as you know, so it shouldn't be that difficult to find our address. It'll be fun! And diplomatic."

"My parents don't really expect me back today, so I'm tagging along with you," Sakura informed Naruto. "I'd go with Sasuke, except I wouldn't want to be a fifth wheel nor be a witness when Sasuke inevitably snaps and tries to kill Kiba."

"My dad's not too sure of you anyway, so that would be great," Naruto said easily.

Sakura raised her eyebrows. "He's not sure of me? Why not?"

"It's nothing personal," Naruto assured her. "It's just that of our team, there's me, who he's known for twelve years, Kakashi who he's been training since before I was even born, Sasuke who he didn't really know who he was until four years ago but has spent a great deal of time with since Obito got custody, and you. He's juts kind of overprotective."

"I see," Sakura said. "And if nothing else, this will be an interesting dinner. Far better than trying to figure out the best way to say I faced down a pedophile who was trying to possess my teammate."

----

"Is it true?" Itachi demanded the minute he was alone with Kakashi.

"Is what true?" Kakashi asked automatically.

"Orochimaru's really in custody? And he really faced Sasuke?" Itachi clarified.

Kakashi nodded. "The note Sasuke left declaring Orochimaru's comatose state to be the aftereffect of his Tsukuyomi seem to indicate that, but I haven't gotten a chance to ask him about it yet."

"Sasuke. Sasuke faced down Orochimaru and he's still alive," Itachi shook his head in disbelief. "He even technically won. I never thought I would say this but thank God for the Mangekyou Sharingan."

"How did you even hear about that so fast, anyway?" Kakashi inquired.

Itachi gave him a look that implied that that was a very stupid question.

"Confirmation of Orochimaru's capture can't be all you wanted to ask me about," Kakashi realized. "If nothing else, you could ask Sasuke about it and you seem to like him more than me."

"True," Itachi replied to both points. "But he spoke to Orochimaru. He had to have. I only met him the once, but he seemed very…garrulous."

"And this is a problem because…?" Kakashi asked, before realization struck him. "You're worried that he'll tell Sasuke the truth about the massacre."

"Can you blame me?" Itachi asked rhetorically. "By all rights, I shouldn't even be here. That kind of mission was one that could never be admitted to and a scapegoat was needed. I knew that."

"If Orochimaru was willing to take responsibility – or credit, most likely, in the world of the missing-nin – back then why do you think he would suddenly confess now?" Kakashi asked. "I'll admit, I could never figure out why Orochimaru was in the village in the first place or how he knew what was happening or if he knew or just happened to be passing by and saw an opportunity. Either way, he must have had his reasons."

Itachi nodded. "I know and I'm not saying he would claim innocence to the world, but if he entered the Exam then clearly he's chosen to go after Sasuke."

"That makes sense as he's just a Genin – no matter how exceptional – and you're a Jounin who used to be in ANBU," Kakashi pointed out.

"Why did Hokage-sama take me out of ANBU after…that?" Itachi asked.

Kakashi shrugged. "I suppose Minato-sensei had decided you'd sacrificed enough."

Itachi merely shook his head to that. "If Orochimaru can convince Sasuke of the truth or at the very least plant the seeds of doubt in his mind, he could turn him against Konoha and if he gives him a curse seal, it will mess with his mind and could convince him to leave."

"We don't know that Orochimaru knew that it was ordered or about the planned coup," Kakashi reasoned.

"No, but finding out the truth about me…" Itachi trailed off. "It might be enough."

"You don't want him to hate you." As expected, Itachi didn't respond. "Even if Sasuke does at some point get a curse seal, he won't just jump ship that easily." And it was even true: Sasuke hadn't defected until after running into his older brother again (ironically trying to make sure he'd stay safe in Konoha), getting his ass kicked, and lying comatose for weeks after experiencing a particularly vicious Tsukuyomi.

"I wouldn't call finding out that the near-complete annihilation of his entire clan wasn't an impulsive act of a madman counts as 'so easily'," Itachi countered.

"Even if Sasuke were to realize the truth, he's spent too many years hating Orochimaru to go to him now. And Sasuke really hates Orochimaru. So much that I'm starting to worry. Why would he listen to anything he had to say? Orochimaru has no proof one way or another and unless Sasuke secretly thinks you go around killing people for the hell of it, he has no reason to believe that of you. And trust me, given Sasuke's extremely strong revenge tendencies, I think you'd know if he secretly hated you."

"You're right," Itachi said, looking – only very slightly, but given who it was the fact that it was discernable at all was huge – relieved. "Thank you."

Kakashi wondered briefly why Itachi had chosen to have that conversation with him of all people, but then again, considering his only other options were the Hokage who had ordered him to do it in the first place or Jiraiya, maybe it wasn't too surprising.

----

As Gaara had decreed, the Sand siblings arrived at Naruto's house promptly at 6:30. Sakura was already there, having simply followed her friend home to commence Operation: Convince the Hokage I'm at Least as Sane as the Rest of the Team and Not Useless No Matter What Sasuke Says. To their slight surprise, Baki was with them. Clearly he wanted to make sure the Kazekage's kids didn't spill anything classified to the Hokage, never mind if they let anything slip about their possible involvement in the invasion that might not even happen.

"Ah, you must be Naruto's new friends' sensei," Minato greeted him. "I saw your profile earlier…Baki, right?"

Baki nodded. "Indeed, Hokage-sama."

"We were going to have calamari, but Naruto insisted that after such a harrowing experience as the second exam, he simply had to have ramen," Minato explained, leading the way to the dining room. "After hearing that he faced down with one of our most dangerous missing-nin, I decided he deserved it. I hope you don't mind."

"Ramen's fine," Temari informed him. "It isn't very popular in Suna, so we don't get a chance to eat it very often."

Naruto, who was about to start eating, dropped his chopsticks and stared in openmouthed horror at her.

"Breathe, Naruto," Sakura advised.

"No…ramen?" Naruto asked weakly.

"Is he really that obsessed with it?" Kankuro asked incredulously.

"Yes," Sakura and Minato said simultaneously.

"He would sell his soul for a bowl of ramen," Sakura declared.

"Or at least rent it out," added Minato.

"Hey, whose side are you on, anyway?" Naruto demanded.

"I wasn't aware that there were sides," Minato told his son.

"Of course there are! Kankuro uses puppets," Naruto stage-whispered.

"Ah yes," Minato nodded understandingly. "I see."

"Is it a bad thing to use puppets in Konoha?" Baki inquired.

"Not really," Minato responded. "He just…has severe puppet issues. I'm not sure why, but it's kind of a long-standing thing."

The two adults quickly drifted into their own conversation about the exams that the people actually taking them couldn't care less about.

"So Gaara, do you think we'll need to have prelims?" Sakura asked, trying to draw the silent boy into the conversation.

"It doesn't matter if we do, I'll take down anyone in my way," Gaara answered her seriously.

"Can you try not to kill any of my other friends?" Naruto asked. "I like them."

"Aren't you friends with half of the people still in the exam?" Temari asked.

"No," Naruto replied easily. "Just you, Gaara, Sakura, Sasuke, Kiba, Hinata, Shino, Ino, Shikamaru, Choji, Neji, Lee, and Tenten. Anyone else, I really don't care."

"A list would be helpful," Gaara informed him.

"I'll get right on that," Naruto proclaimed.

"So I don't make the cut?" Kankuro demanded. "You see me just as much as you see my siblings!"

"Yeah, but…puppets," Naruto said simply.

"Don't worry, Kankuro, you can be my friend," Sakura assured him. "And possibly Sasuke's. Although he usually likes to pretend he doesn't like people who aren't either on his team or live with him."

----

"So I heard Orochimaru showed up at the Exams," Rin decided to bring up what they were all thinking about anyway. "It's a good thing he didn't get away but I hope he regains consciousness soon so we can find out what he's up to."

"I can't believe he has the nerve to come back here," Obito practically growled. "First he betrays Konoha, then he kills almost my entire family, and now he's coming after Sasuke!"

"And I'm still not over what he did to me," Anko added. "I just wish I could remember why he abandoned me…"

"Maybe he didn't," Kakashi suggested. "Maybe you left him."

"Maybe," Anko said dismissively. "I was pretty young though, so I kind of doubt I would have been strong enough."

"You've always been strong enough," Kakashi said loyally.

"Have you talked to Itachi or Sasuke about Orochimaru yet?" Rin asked her husband.

Obito shook his head. "No. Sasuke's traumatized enough and he has to deal with Orochimaru trying to steal his body and Itachi not only has to worry about Sasuke but he was actually there when everyone died so…I'm really not sure what there is TO say."

"Sometimes there isn't anything to say," Rin replied.

There was a contemplative silence which Anko broke with a, "So did you hear about Sasuke's note after he somehow managed to incapacitate Orochimaru? It read like it was an acceptance speech."

Obito snorted. "Given what a huge feat that was, everyone's hatred of Orochimaru, and the blatant favoritism we've been receiving since the massacre, I wouldn't be surprised if he did win some kind of award for this."

"Although heaven help him if Sakura finds out that he called her useless again in it…" Kakashi shook his head.

"Is she really useless, though?" Rin asked curiously. "Because I've seen her around at the hospital and she seemed to know what she was doing."

"I wouldn't have dealt with all those protests about how I can't 'stack the team' if she was," Kakashi answered. "Although given her test scores, I still would have gotten them."

"Then why does Sasuke keep saying that?" Anko asked.

"Probably the same reason he keeps calling Naruto an idiot: to piss his teammates off," Obito guessed.

"And then there's that," Kakashi acknowledged. "Mostly I think it's just that since he's one of fo-three of the only people around with the Sharingan since the massacre and Naruto's the Hokage's son, Sakura's civilian background makes her stand out as the 'normal' one on the team."

"You were going to say four people with the Sharingan, weren't you?" Obito said knowingly.

"No," Kakashi cursed his slip-up. He really had no reason for knowing about Madara.

"Danzo's dead, though, so we really don't have to worry about him," Obito told him. He made a face. "I still can't believe he would have taken one of Shisui's eyes like that! Wasn't it enough that the poor kid drowned himself?"

Kunai dodged.

----

"Don't you have any other friends you could hang out with?" Inuzuka Hana demanded.

"With such late notice, that would be rude," Kiba said virtuously. "And we can't have that."

"You know what else is rude?" Hana asked rhetorically. "Crashing your sibling's date. And that goes for both of you."

"This is my house," Sasuke pointed out. "And I would have just gone over to Naruto's like apparently everyone else was doing, but Naruto specifically made sure to tell me I wasn't invited and I should spend time with family despite the fact he's letting Sakura tag along."

"We may as well make the best of it," Itachi said calmly. "And we can hear how they did in the first two exams."

"What are you even doing out of the forest so early? I had heard that you can't leave until the fifth day," Hana remarked.

"You only need to stay until you pass," Kiba said simply. "And we did."

"Already?" Hana sounding shocked.

"Impressed?" Kiba asked smugly.

"To be honest I'm amazed you passed at all…" Hana admitted.

"That makes two of us," Sasuke muttered. "They just ended up literally stumbling onto a scroll."

"Well if someone is going to be so careless as to leave one lying among a bunch of dismembered corpses, I don't see why we should take advantage of it," Kiba said heatedly. "And what do you mean you're amazed we passed? Don't you have any faith in your own brother?"

"She means that it is surprising because you graduated from the Academy so very recently," Itachi interceded before an argument could break out. "Usually Jounin wait at least a year to enter their students as Gai did. It's been five years since rookies like yourselves have entered the exam and those that do never make it this far."

"So maybe we're just amazing," Kiba suggested.

Hana snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly it."

Kiba chose to ignore his sister's sarcastic tone and instead turned to Sasuke. "It's a good thing you guys finished as quickly as you did."

"Why's that?" Sasuke asked cautiously.

"Because otherwise poor Sakura would have been stuck between you, Naruto, and your unresolved sexual tension," he smirked.

Sasuke wondered how much Itachi and his girlfriend would complain if he were to just stab Kiba right there.

"Kiba," Hana scolded. "There's no need to be so rude."

"Rude? Try honest. You haven't seen them together. And from what Sakura told me about the conversations they had during the exam…" Kiba shook his head.

Sasuke realized that perhaps Sakura was more serious about not being called useless than he thought.

"Although I suppose having to deal with two people who are so obviously in love is less awful than having to face down that snake guy," Kiba noted.

Sasuke noticed Itachi stiffen slightly, but the two Inuzuka didn't. "Yes, facing down an S-class criminal is a bit more than should reasonably be expected from us in Chuunin Exams."

"I'm kind of surprised you didn't kill him once you had him at your mercy, actually," Kiba confessed.

"It didn't occur to me," Sasuke lied. "I mean, as much as I hate him and want him dead, I'm only twelve and I want to put off my first kill until after I become a Chuunin at the very least. Besides, this way Konoha can see why he was here or if it was just for me." And he said it all with a straight face, too.

"Did you confront him about what happened?" Hana asked curiously.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "I tried to. We got separated and Naruto came back in the middle of it and ruined the atmosphere."

"So he didn't say anything to you?" Itachi pressed.

"He kept talking about how he wanted my body but that did not, in fact, make him a pedophile like Naruto and Sakura seemed to think it did," Sasuke explained. "He also started to say something about how the massacre wasn't his fault, but I didn't need to hear his excuses."

Itachi relaxed marginally.

Crisis averted. Or at least put on hold until Orochimaru woke up.

----

"We should do this again sometime," Naruto said, standing in the doorway as Sakura and the Suna delegation were about to leave. "I even forgot to be terrified of Kankuro after the first half hour."

"It was probably the lack of puppets," Gaara suggested.

"Too true," Naruto agreed. "Of course, the next time I see him he'll be armed again, but it was nice not to have to worry about them for one night."

"Thank you for your hospitality and a most stimulating discussion," Baki said politely.

"The pleasure was all mine," Minato said pleasantly. "It's nice to hear about other parts of the world."

Kankuro pulled Sakura off to the side. "You're his teammate, right? You have to know."

"Have to know what?" Sakura asked, puzzled.

"Why does he keep doing that?" Kankuro demanded. "I mean, for the love of God, they're puppets! He can't seriously be that bothered by them. He's not afraid of Gaara so why is he making a big deal about me?"

Sakura cocked her head at him. "You really don't know?"

"If I did I wouldn't be asking," Kankuro replied.

Sakura sighed. "He'll probably yell at me for spoiling his fun but…Naruto's a Jinchuriki."

"I know," Kankuro said, sounding confused. "But I thought no one here cared."

"We don't," Sakura confirmed. "But Suna apparently does."

"I have no problem with Naruto – aside from his insistence that I'm evil – and neither does anyone else here for the exams," Kankuro told her.

"But you do care that your brother is," Sakura pointed out.

Kankuro stared at her. "Yeah, but he kills people. Frequently. And not just the ones he's supposed to."

"I kind of figured. Either way, I think the fact he's responded so strongly to Naruto just hanging around and bugging you guys is kind of telling, don't you?" Sakura asked. "And sad."

"So Gaara apparently wants people to talk to him?" Kankuro still sounded lost. "How does that translate into Naruto avoiding me?"

"Naruto may not have to face any prejudice on a day-to-day basis but he could see from the minute we met you that Gaara does," Sakura explained. " I know that he kills people and it's not my place to judge but Naruto doesn't like it when anyone's shunned for something they can't help and the fact that Gaara's a Jinchuriki like him just makes it resonate more."

"So you're saying…" Kankuro trailed off, uncertain.

"Naruto's treating you like he sees you treat your brother," Sakura confirmed. "Although with less actual fear and more over-the-top-ness as this is Naruto we're talking about."

"I see," Kankuro said finally. "I…appreciate the clarification."

Chapter Text

"Alright, I have half an hour before I need to be there for the end of the second part of the exam," Minato announced. Orochimaru had woken up sometime during the night and Minato wanted to be there for the pre-torture interrogation. So did Obito and Itachi, actually, but Minato was too concerned that Orochimaru might say something about how the massacre wasn't his doing and the last thing any of the Uchiha needed was to have the truth become a family secret. As Minato claimed that Obito had too much personal interest in the matter in order to exclude him, Itachi could not be in attendance either. Kakashi, however, decided to tag along. Ostensibly, it was because he could but really he wanted to see if the confrontation in the forest had raised the Snake Sannin's suspicious or if he had any real idea about what happened the night of the massacre.

Ibiki nodded. "Understood." Even though Ibiki didn't know the truth, he had been in that line of work far too long to ask any questions should the subject come up. He opened the door to the containment room holding Orochimaru. "Greetings," he said pleasantly. "My name is Ibiki and I'll be your interrogator for today. I would advise you to cooperate as this part doesn't have to be painful."

Orochimaru simply glared at him. "Minato. You're looking well."

"I wish I could say the same but you've apparently sold your soul to a snake demon," Minato returned evenly.

"We'll start with a nice easy question and work our way up from there," Ibiki informed his prisoner. "What is your name?"

"What's my name?" Orochimaru repeated. "If you didn't know that then why in the world did you arrest me? Do you think I'm an imposter? If I were going to disguise myself, why would I choose the appearance of someone liable to get arrested if not outright killed in Konoha?"

"What is your name?" Ibiki asked again.

Orochimaru sighed. There really was little point antagonizing them on the basics. "Orochimaru."

"How old are you?" Ibiki asked.

Orochimaru snorted. "Why don't you go try and ask Tsunade that question."

"I'm sure you could provide us with your age just as well as she can," Ibiki countered calmly. "How old are you?"

"Fifty-one," Orochimaru replied.

"Why are you a missing-nin?" Ibiki asked.

"Because Sarutobi-sensei was an old fool, Minato is a young fool, and I wouldn't touch a cursed necklace," Orochimaru answered promptly.

"Mark that down as 'I didn't become Hokage, the Yondaime had a problem with me experimenting on the people of Konoha, and I wouldn't touch a cursed necklace'," Kakashi advised.

"Why did you come back?" Ibiki continued.

"I was feeling nostalgic," Orochimaru claimed.

"Nostalgic?" Ibiki repeated. "For what? The scenery? Attacking pubescent boys?"

"The Forest of Death was always a favorite training ground for me and my snakes," Orochimaru insisted. "And when I heard there was an exam going on, I decided to join in. Is that so wrong?"

"You killed three genin and could very well have started an international incident," Minato pointed out. "Not to mention the paperwork. It really is a good thing they signed those waivers, or I'd still be busy with that."

"I killed them before they signed the waivers," Orochimaru responded.

"That never leaves this room," Minato said warningly.

"Why did you go after Uchiha Sasuke?" Ibiki asked.

"Well since I was in the exam anyway, I decided to go all out. It was simply luck that led me to Sasuke-kun's team," Orochimaru said.

"Sakura's right, that does make him sound like a pedophile," Kakashi murmured.

"You are on record as saying you would be back to try and steal one of the remaining Uchiha's body's. Now you're back and went after one of the Uchiha," Ibiki remarked.

"Well, the other two would be Jounin, yes?" Orochimaru asked rhetorically. "So I suppose the smart thing to do WOULD be to go after the youngest and most malleable."

"Sasuke's only malleable if you're offering him a new person to seek vengeance on," Kakashi added his two cents.

"And what's this about me being on record saying that?" Orochimaru demanded. "To the best of my knowledge I've never made any such claim. Well, I did when talking to Sasuke-kun a few days ago but not before that."

"You did," Ibiki answered. "The night of the massacre."

Orochimaru's eye twitched. "For the love of God, how many times do I have to tell you people that I am innocent?"

"It might be a little more convincing if you weren't so unrepentantly evil," Kakashi confided.

"Be that as it may, we are not here to talk about the massacre," Minato spoke up. "Ibiki, I do not want anything he says on that subject to make it to the records."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Ibiki agreed.

"And why's that?" Orochimaru sneered. "Want to protect your precious student and your son's teammate from the knowledge that Itachi killed them?"

"You wish to deny the involvement you so proudly proclaimed just four years ago in order to pin the blame on one of the few survivors?" Minato asked, his tone impassive. "No, I do not want such a thing to reach their ears because it would only be claimed by someone with a malicious intent like you. Ibiki, let me know if he says anything else."

----

"Where's Kakashi?" Sakura asked.

"Late," Sasuke replied shortly. "Is that really so surprising?"

"It shouldn't be," Sakura said, "but he's actually been on time to all of the official things and I think I might actually be getting used to it."

"Not by choice he hasn't," Naruto grinned. "That's what he gets for having people in his life, though. Besides us and Gai, of course. We had our own issues and Gai was too easily sidetracked by rock-paper-scissor competitions Kakashi didn't even need to look up for."

"You know," Sakura said slowly. "It just occurred to me how lucky we are that Kakashi didn't get Shikamaru as a genin."

The three took a moment to silently contemplate the horrors of having quite possibly the laziest person ever – particularly before Asuma's death – and KAKASHI of all people paired together.

"So you were asking about Kakashi?" Naruto said finally. "He and my dad are witnessing the beginning of Ibiki's interrogation. They always ask a few questions before they do anything to see how cooperative the victim's going to be. My dad's there because it's a 'threat to village security' and Kakashi went to make sure that snake pedophile doesn't know anything."

"Aside from the fact that we claimed that Jiraiya – or, more specifically, Naruto's godfather, who we all know is Jiraiya – was dead, I don't think we gave anything away," Sakura said slowly. "The fact that Sasuke has a Mangekyou Sharingan isn't common knowledge, but it's not exactly a secret, either."

"You know," Sasuke felt the need to point out, "if you had just let me kill him like I wanted to, we wouldn't have to worry about this."

"Sasuke, if we let you kill everyone you wanted to, you would be classified as a natural disaster," Naruto said flatly.

"I'm not that bad!" Sasuke argued.

"Sakura?" Naruto asked.

"Outvoted," Sakura informed Sasuke.

"I hate you both," Sasuke informed them seriously.

"So we've heard," Naruto said airily.

"Besides, you've seen how shocked everyone is that you just managed to put Orochimaru in a position to be captured," Sakura reminded him. "Imagine how they'd react if you managed to kill him. We simply do NOT need that kind of scrutiny."

"No one would have to know it was me," Sasuke said.

"I'm pretty sure the Yamanaka's have some kind of jutsu that works posthumously," Sakura countered.

"Well, if I destroyed the brain then that wouldn't be a problem," Sasuke insisted.

"Yeah, but then everyone would start freaking out because there was an S-class Missing-nin gate crashing and some other mysterious and possibly nefarious vigilante on the prowl," Naruto replied. "And then they could very well cancel the exam. Or at the very least make us drop out. And do you remember what Kakashi said about if we don't pass this exam?"

Sasuke couldn't suppress a shiver. "Yes. I agreed to let him live for now, didn't I?"

"I never thought I 'd see the day when something was more important to Sasuke than revenge," Sakura said, shaking her head in awe. "Even if that 'something' is avoiding Gai's training. I think he's making progress."

"I don't know," Naruto said, "he already killed the Unholy Alliance in this timeline and everyone else who he wanted revenge on in the previous one. The fact he's already gotten vengeance could explain why he's more patient about getting it again."

Sasuke decided to ignore them as a bedraggled Ino chose that moment to jump on his back.

"Sasuke-kun! I'm so glad you passed!" Ino beamed at him. "Not that I had any doubt, of course. I'm so glad to be out of that forest after five days! I honestly can't believe I survived five days with Shikamaru and Choji! Honestly, those two would be lost without me."

"Ino, if you haven't bathed in five days, kindly get off of me," Sasuke told her, removing her arms from their stranglehold around his neck.

"Huh? You mean you have?" Ino blinked, surprised. "But how?"

"It comes from being incredibly awesome and finishing the exam in six hours, that's how," Kiba declared, walking up to them leisurely. "Or by being Sasuke. Hey, your brother doesn't talk much, does he?"

"You don't think much, do you?" Sasuke countered.

"Sakura, I am so very happy to see that you have made it past the second round," Lee said cheerfully, clasping her hand. "Now we are one step closer to the path of Chuunin and true love."

"I said I'd think about it," Sakura corrected, " and only after we're friends first."

"How youthful!" Lee exclaimed. "And Sasuke…I will fight you in the Finals."

Eyeing Neji, Sasuke responded monotonously, "If it is fated."

Lee and Tenten both immediately shot looks at their teammate, but he paid the comment no mind.

"Hey, Gaara! Temari! Over here," Naruto called.

The Sand Siblings made their way over to where the Rookie Nine and Gai's team were waiting.

"These guys are great," Naruto vouched for the team from Suna.

"Even the evil soulless puppet wielder?" Choji asked.

"Well…he's decent," Naruto admitted.

"Hello Naruto," Kankuro said pleasantly. "I see you forget to greet me. Not to worry, I know that these things happen sometime."

"Sakura?" Naruto asked dangerously.

"…Yes?" she asked innocently.

"Why is Kankuro smirking knowingly at me?" Naruto inquired.

"Is he? I didn't notice," Sakura lied.

"I KNOW there's no way he would have figured it out so soon, Sasuke doesn't actually care enough to fill him in, and I don't think he's even met Kakashi. Did you tell him?" Naruto demanded.

Sakura winced. "Maybe?"

"Sakura!" Naruto yelled.

"What? I was only trying to help!" Sakura insisted. "You know, so we can speed up the healing. I hate seeing them like this."

Naruto huffed. "Oh, whatever. God, you're not going to apologize to Kabuto for that fire incident next, are you?"

"Oh, God no!" Sakura said, sounding shocked. "I have limits, you know."

"So you're the new guys, huh?" Tenten asked.

"New guys?" Temari repeated. "We're not new, just from Suna."

"Naruto seems to make it a point to collect friends," Tenten explained. "People may try to resist – notably Neji – but in the end, it's inevitable. You'll either become his friend or die trying not to be."

"That's kind of morbid," Temari noted.

"Only if you're one of the stubborn ones," Tenten replied, holding out her hand. "I'm Tenten, by the way."

"Temari," Temari introduced herself, taking the offered hand. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but I think you may be the sanest person I've met here."

"I get that a lot," Tenten confessed.

"Hello everyone. My name is Uchiha Obito and I am the Proctor for the third exam. As the time limit has officially passed so the twenty-one of you that are here have technically passed the second exam," Obito announced.

"What do you mean 'technically'?" Shino asked.

"Ten and a half matches would go on for far too long, so we're going to have preliminary matches," Obito explained.

"What? That's not fair!" Kiba protested.

"Yeah, we made it through the second stage we should get to go to the third stage," Ino agreed.

"The second exam is not over until we say it's over," Obito said sternly. "And if you guys are seriously going to complain this much every time you hear something you don't like, you're not ready to be Chuunin."

Wisely, everyone else decided to withhold their objections.

"Great, now since we have an odd number of people, that would mean that either one person would have to fight themselves," Obito informed them. "And while this isn't always easy for most people nor for the judges trying to determine if the person won or lost, I've seen it done."

"Couldn't the odd man out just get a bye?" Kabuto asked sensibly.

"There are no free rides!" Obito declared. "You want a promotion you have to earn it! That said, would anybody like to choose this time to quit? Preferably one, three, or even five of you? There's always the possibility the person fighting themselves may win and we'd be stuck with an odd number for the third exam. While that can also be done, it doesn't reflect well on your mental health and we do have some minimum sanity requirements that must be met for promotion."

"I can see why that might cause problems," Kabuto nodded sagely. "Well, I'm out then."

"Hey Kabuto, you know how this is, like, your seventh time taking the exam?" Naruto asked.

"Better than you, yes," Kabuto replied.

"I have a theory as to why that is: you give up at the very first opportunity!" Naruto cried.

"I do not!" Kabuto defended himself. "The first opportunity was before the tenth question."

"You tried to give up when Anko showed up, though," Sasuke noted.

"Can you blame me?" Kabuto demanded.

"Hey, you're not even the one she molested!" Kiba called out.

"You're still not over that?" Sakura asked.

"It was traumatic!" Kiba claimed.

"And troublesome," Shikamaru contributed.

"I'm starting to think we could just replace you with a button that says 'troublesome' when you press it," Temari told him.

"If it wouldn't be so troublesome to look into that, I probably would," Shikamaru replied.

"Giving up at the second opportunity is different from the first," Kabuto maintained.

"Whatever helps you train for your eighth exam," Naruto said simply.

"So does this mean that we can just have ten normal matches without trying to unbalance any of us any further?" Choji asked.

Obito nodded. "But first, a few words from our Hokage."

"Where is he?" Kankuro asked.

"Right here," Minato said, strolling into the room, Kakashi at his heels.

"You're late, sensei!" Sakura said automatically.

"Sorry, I was on my way here when I decided to try stalking Ibiki. It was…an experience," Kakashi said, looking distant.

"I wish I could tell if he was lying," Sakura said.

"We're probably better off not knowing," Sasuke assured her.

"I see that quite a few of you have made it through the Forest of Death and let me congratulate you for that. Unfortunately, due to time constraints-" Minato began.

Naruto snorted quietly. "Time constraints? Please. They waited three hours for Sasuke."

"We have no choice but to have a preliminary round right now. Normally, you all would be on equal footing as you would be fresh from five days of survival training but this time nearly half of the remaining applicants finished inordinately early but being well-rested is just their reward for doing so well on the exam. This year has some of the most talented Genin that I've seen in the exams for quite some time so I'm sure that with a little extra training, you all can pass an exam in the near future, even if that exam is not necessarily this one. Obito, would you like to announce the match-ups?"

"Certainly, Hokage-sama," Obito said respectfully as he went over to the computer. "The computer will randomly match you all up. We're going to run through all of you before we start the matches, so if you're scheduled to go first, don't worry: you still have a few minutes to prepare yourself."

Temari vs. Ino

Sakura vs. Hinata

Choji vs. Shino

Kankuro vs. Neji

Gaara vs. Zaku

Naruto vs. Yoroi

Shikamaru vs. Misumi

Tenten vs. Sasuke

Kin vs. Kiba

Lee vs. Dosu

"NOOOOOOOOO!" Lee cried, falling to his knees.

"What is it now?" Neji demanded.

"I'm…I'm last!" Lee said, sounding heartbroken.

"Well, you have to learn patience sooner or later," Neji sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

"Um…Gaara?" Kankuro asked tentatively. "Are you alright?"

"Oh yes," Gaara replied. "Zaku's not on the list."

"List?" Sasuke asked blankly.

"You don't want to know," Sakura told him.

"You sure this doesn't bother you?" Kankuro asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Baby steps," Naruto said firmly.

Chapter Text

"Would Temari and Ino please stay here while everyone else gets out of the way of the battle?" Obito requested.

"Ino is so going down it's not even funny just how badly she is going to lose," Naruto commented as Team Seven went off to a semi-isolated spot so they could converse freely about the matches.

"You don't know that," Sakura argued. "After all, I'm the only person on record to have defeated her mind switch jutsu and I don't think Temari has a borderline split personality like I did."

"Yeah, but last time Ino tied with you and you didn't really know anything you weren't taught in the Academy while Temari beat Tenten, who was no pushover herself and was trained by Gai of all people," Sasuke pointed out.

"Hey!" Sakura protested. "I wasn't that bad!"

"Yeah, you kind of were," Naruto told her. "But don't worry; I was the same way and we both don't suck now."

"Temari was probably the worst opponent save Gaara for Tenten given she uses projectile weapons and Temari has her fan," Sakura informed them. "Although if Ino can't find a way to immobilize Temari the mind switch jutsu will never work."

Naruto laughed. "Gaara's probably the worst opponent for anyone. Poor Zaku. Whatever happened to him originally? He didn't face Gaara because Lee did so I don't think anyone actually died during prelims."

"Didn't Orochimaru sacrifice him and that Sound girl to bring back the First and Second Hokages to harass the Third with?" Sakura asked.

Sasuke shrugged. "I think so. A lot of Orochimaru's jutsus involved human sacrifices."

Meanwhile, Ino and Temari were staring each other down.

"I have to win to show Sasuke-kun what I'm made of," Ino declared boldly.

Temari rolled her eyes. "A fangirl fighting for her idol, I see. With that attitude, there's simply no way I could ever allow you to beat me, even if you did have the skills."

"And why not?" Ino challenged.

"Because that kind of thinking is embarrassing," Temari replied frankly. "And more than that, it's disgraceful. If I manage to snap you out of it when I kick your ass, I'll be doing you a favor."

Not appreciating being called a disgrace, Ino charged at Temari. The Suna Kunoichi just lifted her fan and sent a strong gust of wind to push Ino back. Surprised, Ino tried it again with similar results. The kunai she threw was sent hurtling back towards her and she had to duck in order to avoid getting hit.

"I can't get near her with that damn fan and I don't know how to get that from her," Ino said, trying to think of a plan. Her eyes lit up when one finally occurred to her. "You know, you might be right," she admitted slowly. "Maybe I haven't necessarily been the best example of a Kunoichi."

Temari snorted. "You think? If you're this bad with your hormones now, I really don't want to see what you'll be like when you're older."

"Yes, you are a few years older than me, aren't you?" Ino said thoughtfully. "I suppose that explains your more mature approach. Me, I only graduated four months ago. I haven't even killed anyone yet and I do still tend to obsess over cute boys." Ino's eyes hardened. "But that's all going to change. Sakura was just like me and even though she got put on a team with the two hottest guys in our class, she's really grown up and doesn't seem worried about getting a boyfriend at all anymore. I can't lose to her and I will not prove you right about me." With that, she took out a kunai and sliced her hair off at the ponytail. "I am more than just a shallow little girl only concerned about her looks and popularity." With that, she tossed the hair she'd removed up in the air and watched it settle around the two of them.

Temari stared incredulously at her. "Did you…did you just get a dramatic haircut? I…approve of the sentiment to start acting like a real Kunoichi but now is really not the time to have life-changing moments! We're in the middle of a fight here! Sort out your personal issues later!" With that, she waved her fan and swept all of the discarded hair to the side of the arena.

Ino's face fell. "No!" Her plan to immobilize Temari by imbuing her hair with her chakra and then possessing her had just been literally swept away.

Without further ado, Temari waved her fan again and trapped Ino in a cyclone. She let her spin around a little before letting her crash to the floor, hard. There was a crunching sound as she landed and Ino winced, "Ah, my leg…"

Obito went over to check on the fallen girl. "It looks like it's broken," he told her. "Do you want to keep fighting or forfeit?"

"I forfeit," Ino said quietly.

"Sorry little, girl, maybe next time," Temari said coolly as she went to join her brothers up on one of the balconies.

"Harsh," Sakura commented, looking concerned for Ino. "And rather embarrassing, too."

"What did you expect?" Naruto asked. "She made Tenten look incompetent and Ino's currently just the kind of Kunoichi Temari can't stand. Do you think she meant it about taking things more seriously?"

"Probably, given how well that went," Sakura decided. "And since she threw me in there as an example of someone who has 'rapidly improved' while she's largely the same girl that she was at the Academy, if nothing else our rivalry should be enough to spur her on."

"Is it really fair to have a rivalry with a twelve-year-old girl?" Sasuke asked innocently.

"Look, it's not my fault my rival didn't come back in time with me," Sakura huffed. "And what about Kakashi? He's still maintaining his rivalry with Gai!"

"Yeah, but he really didn't get a choice in the matter," Naruto pointed out. "Besides, he's Gai," he continued as if that explained everything. And it did, really. "Age doesn't matter when one is so youthful."

"Seriously, don't say that word," Sasuke ordered.

"And what was up with that 'settle your personal issues after the fight'? Fights are the perfect time to settle your issues!" Naruto declared.

"That only happens to you and anyone who spends far too much time with you," Sakura explained.

"Next up is Sakura and Hinata," Obito announced after Ino had been taken to a medic-nin to fix her leg. Given Tsunade had been running the hospital personally for the last four years, it wouldn't take long. "Would both of you come down here?"

"Hey, Sakura?" Naruto said as Sakura made a move to head down to the arena. "You know you're one of my best friends, right?"

"Right…" Sakura said, not sure where this was going.

"Well Hinata's very important to me as well. I know that you're probably going to beat her, but if you make it anywhere near as humiliating as Neji did, I will not forgive you," Naruto said sternly.

"I won't," Sakura promised. "I like Hinata."

"Good," Naruto smiled. "And for the record, I'm rooting for Hinata."

"What? How come?" Sakura demanded.

"Because she could use the confidence boost," Naruto replied easily. "Besides, Sasuke can root for you."

They both turned to look at Sasuke who returned their stares impassively.

"He'll be rooting on the inside," Naruto claimed.

Sakura just sighed and went down for her match.

"Yo," Kakashi said from behind them.

"How did it go?" Sasuke asked immediately.

"What, no 'hi Kakashi', 'good to see you, Kakashi', 'if it weren't for you I'd still be brooding because everyone was still pissed at me for abandoning them to run off with a pedophile and then after killing him ran off with another one, Kakashi'?" Kakashi asked, feigning hurt.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Just tell us if Orochimaru knew anything."

"He was pretty flippant in his answers," Kakashi confide. "It was clear that he wasn't taking his status as prisoner seriously and was more annoyed about his capture and whatever delay it made in his plans than anything else. He did make sure to say he felt that your brother was responsible for the massacre, but that was probably more due to the fact that Itachi was there and even though everyone thinks otherwise Orochimaru was not that night."

"So it's a good thing Itachi and Obito weren't allowed to be there," Naruto said. "How did Ibiki take that theory?"

"As far as Ibiki is concerned, when Minato said that nothing about the massacre was to be included in the report, Orochimaru said nothing about the massacre," Kakashi explained. "He's a professional like that."

"Kick her ass, Hinata!" Naruto called down encouragingly.

Hinata blushed a little and smiled back at him.

"Okay, don't end it too quickly but don't let her land a hit on me…" Sakura murmured. "Thanks, Naruto."

"Begin," Obito said.

Since one of Sakura's areas of expertise – aside from medical jutsu and her natural talent with genjutsu that she never really used beyond dispelling – was taijutsu and Gentle Fist was the Hyuuga clan's signature style, the battle naturally began with a taijutsu spar.

"If either one of them lands a good hit, it's over," Kakashi noted. "But Sakura should have been able to get one through by now. Why is she holding back?"

"Naruto didn't want Hinata to get crushed," Sasuke explained.

"She's a really nice girl and it's not her fault that Sakura has years more experience!" Naruto defended.

"All I know is that if Sakura loses because of that she's going to kill you and if we have to deal with Gai every morning then I will," Sasuke warned him.

"She'll be fine…" Naruto insisted.

Sure enough, after nearly ten minutes of nonstop attacking, both girls were quickly tiring and Sakura aimed a high kick at Hinata's head. When she brought her hands up to defend herself, Sakura channeled chakra into her fist and punched Hinata's chest. The Hyuuga girl flew backwards and into the wall.

After waiting for a minute to see if she would get up, Obito went over to check on her. "She's out," he confirmed.

"Congratulations Sakura!" Lee called down to her.

"Thanks," she replied, waving to him. "For the record," Sakura said once she had made her way back to where the rest of the team was standing, "I hate you, Naruto."

"Why? You did fine," Naruto assured her.

"I know, but that was far harder than it should have been. Hinata may still have insecurity issues, but she's not a pushover and I don't know if you've ever noticed how Hinata fights after you've just cheered her on, but it is not fun to be her opponent."

"Well, at least you weren't up against Neji," Naruto said, trying to be positive.

"True," Sakura agreed. "But I should warn you now that should you have just jinxed it and I have to go up against him in the finals, I'm going to kill you."

"What? How could that possibly be my fault?" Naruto demanded.

"Because you would have jinxed it! Weren't you listening?" Sakura demanded.

"Next up, Shino and Choji," Obito announced.

"Do I have to fight?" Choji whined.

"You don't want to?" Shino asked, possibly surprised. His glasses and coat obstructed his facial expression and his voice sounded impassive, but the mere fact he would ask indicated he did not expect this.

"No," Choji replied. "I'm only here for the same reason Shikamaru is."

"And that is?" Shino pressed.

"Because Ino is very troublesome when she doesn't get her way," Shikamaru supplied helpfully.

"I see," Shino said.

"You can't forfeit, Choji, you already had a chance to," Asuma pointed out. "Besides, do you really want poor Shino to have to fight himself?"

"No, but-" Choji began.

"Besides, if you fight I'll take you out for barbecue and if you win I'll pay," Asuma promised.

"Deal," Choji said quickly. "Let's go. Baika no Jutsu!" Immediately, he swelled up. "Nikudan Sensha!" With that, he rolled himself into a ball and came at Shino.

"This is troublesome," Shino noted as he dodged Choji.

"Why does everybody always steal my catchphrase?" Shikamaru wondered.

"Because it's awesome," Kiba replied easily.

"Just dodging is very much a let-down but until he leaves that form I can't block his chakra," Shino noted. He summoned a two bug clones of himself and watched as Choji rolled over them a few times before finally getting the picture that they would always reform. Reluctantly, Choji uncurled himself so he could determine which of the three Shinos was the real one. When that happened, Shino took the opportunity to send a swarm of bugs Choji's way.

"What's this?" Choji cried. "What are the bugs doing?"

Shino said nothing, waiting. A beat passed and Choji started swaying lightly. Within a minute or so, the boy had passed out.

"You know," Naruto said idly. 'Even though I think I could beat him, Shino still creeps me the hell out."

"Shino creeps everyone out," Sasuke pointed out. "Except possibly Gaara."

"At least no one was seriously hurt in that match. Who's up next?" Sakura wondered.

"The next match will be between Neji and Kankuro," Obito unwittingly answered her.

As the two made their way to the arena, Sakura turned to Kakashi. "Oh yeah, I can't believe I forgot to ask: what happened with Orochimaru?"

"We already covered this, Sakura," Kakashi responded. "Seriously, you should pay more attention."

"I was paying attention and you didn't mention him at all!" Sakura protested. "And if you were talking about it while I was fighting then the only way I could have possibly heard you was if you were talking loudly enough for everyone to hear and we can all agree that's a bad plan."

"Especially as I'm not even sure I'm supposed to mention anything about this to any of you," Kakashi added. "I don't feel like going into it again though so the gist of it is he's still claiming Itachi killed everyone because he doesn't know who else was there that night since he wasn't but doesn't actually know anything."

Sakura nodded. "Okay, thanks."

"Kankuro is SO going down," Naruto said eagerly.

"I agree," Sasuke said. "And it will probably be very amusing."

"You guys are horrible," Sakura reprimanded.

"Come on, Sakura-chan, he's a puppet user," Naruto reminded her.

"I thought you were over that," Sakura said.

Naruto shuddered. "After what happened with Sasori…I will NEVER be over it."

"You are so melodramatic," Sasuke informed him.

Naruto snorted. "You're hardly one to talk."

"I didn't say I was," Sasuke countered. "I'm just making sure you realize that about yourself. It wouldn't do to lack self-awareness, after all."

"I'll keep that in mind," Naruto said matter-of-factly.

"You cannot hope to beat me," Neji said bluntly. "You should surrender right now."

"You don't know that," Kankuro shot back. "You've never even seen me fight."

"I know you use puppets," Neji replied. "And no puppet will ever take down a true Hyuuga."

"Is that a fact?" Kankuro asked.

"It's more than a fact; it's fate," Neji responded.

"I thought Neji was done with that whole 'fate' thing since Kakashi saved his father," Sakura said curiously.

"He's still a branch house member raised by a father who hates the main house because a quirk of fate made him the younger twin and, as such, a branch house member," Kakashi explained. "Although from what I can tell he's less…vehement about it."

"That's good," Sakura said. "He was kind of psychotic about it before."

"So should you end up facing him you'll kill me less?" Naruto asked hopefully.

Sakura pretended to consider the question. "No."

"Sakura-chan!"

Neji quickly activated his Byakugan when despite the fact that Kankuro carried a puppet with him he showed no indication of using it.

"I see," Neji murmured, slowly circling around his opponent. When he was passing by Kankuro's wrapped-up puppet, he suddenly struck it with a powerful blow.

"Why did he attack the puppet?" Sasuke asked. "Is he trying to make sure Kankuro can't use it or something?"

"No, that IS Kankuro, don't you remember?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke just gave him a blank look.

"Right, you were unconscious during most of the prelims before, weren't you?" Naruto asked rhetorically. "Well I don't remember much about Kankuro's fight but I remember that his opponent thought he killed Kankuro when his neck broke and then it started talking and…creepiest thing in the exams aside from Shino. But Shino's awesome and Kankuro uses evil soulless puppets."

When Neji's attack broke through the wrapping, he immediately landed another blow on what was inside it and Kankuro – or his puppet Karasu, rather – immediately collapsed to the ground since its manipulator was unconscious.

"That was probably the lamest match I've ever seen but…the winner is Neji," Obito said, shaking his head.

"That was most unyouthful, Neji," Gai chastised.

"But don't worry," Lee was quick to assure him. "You can still be my eternal rival."

Chapter Text

"Kankuro, are you sure we're related?" Temari demanded one Kankuro had regained consciousness. "That was even more embarrassing that what I did to that fangirl."

"You called her a disgrace and broke her leg!" Kankuro objected.

"But the fight lasted longer than half a minute," Temari pointed out.

"She has a point," Gaara spoke up.

Kankuro turned to him. "B-but your fights rarely last longer than half a minute!" he pointed out, a little uncertainly.

"And if any of those people survived, I'm sure they would be quite embarrassed," Gaara replied before heading down to the arena for his match.

"I just disagreed with Gaara and not only am I still alive, but I didn't even receive a death threat," Kankuro said, sounding a bit dazed.

"And you're not even on the list," Temari marveled.

"So what does Zaku do?" Naruto wondered.

"I have no idea," Sakura replied. "I don't think he made it past the preliminary matches. Sasuke?"

The resident expert on all things Otogakure shrugged. "I don't remember him. I think Orochimaru had managed to sacrifice everyone he had entered in the exam before he left."

"Makes a habit of that, doesn't he?" Kakashi asked rhetorically. "It makes you wonder how he ever has any followers at all."

"Recruitment was actually never really a problem of his, from what I could tell," Sasuke said. "He was a veritable Pied Piper, come to think of it."

Sakura cocked her head contemplatively. "Wasn't the actual Pied Piper some sort of pedophile?"

"That is one theory," Kakashi agreed seriously.

"Orochimaru really WOULD be one then," Naruto decided.

Sasuke sent them all a withering glare. "Oh shut up."

"Seriously, Sasuke, these lack of denials are starting to scare me," Sakura said, sounding concerned.

Whatever Sasuke was going to say next was cut off by the gasps from the people who were actually paying attention to Gaara's match. Turning their attention to the match, they noticed Gaara glaring at a smirking Zaku with sand littering the arena.

"I kind of get the feeling we missed something…" Naruto noted. "Hey, Kiba, what happened?"

"Weren't you paying attention?" Kiba called back.

"Not even slightly," Naruto answered honestly. "Why is Zaku not only not dead but not even a quivering mess?"

"Gaara sent his sand at Zaku and Zaku apparently used air pressure to knock it away from him," Kiba replied.

"Well that was…unexpected," Sakura said. "Do you think Zaku has any chance of winning?"

Sasuke snorted. "No. At most, Gaara will have to put some actual effort into this. Not much, but some."

"Does Gaara actually do anything but use sand and transform before Naruto used his Therapy Jutsu on him?" Kakashi wondered aloud. "Because he would have to take Zaku by surprise for the sand to work and not only would people be calling for Gaara's disqualification if he released Shukaku but if the invasion's still on then Gaara-as-secret-weapon would be far less secret."

"He wasn't very effective anyway as he lost control and immediately took off for the forest," Sakura pointed out.

"If Naruto wasn't there and too stubborn to die, he would have just killed us and made his way back towards Konoha," Sasuke disagreed. "And even if he wouldn't have been able to tell friend from foe, he didn't seem too concerned with that back then and so that was a risk they were probably willing to take."

"I don't think Gaara cares about disqualification," Naruto said, "but even if the Konoha Eleven and Sasuke know about his Jinchuriki status, not everyone knows so he'll probably try not to. Of course, if – God forbid – Zaku actually does manage to land a hit…well, there goes that plan."

Down in the arena, Gaara had completely used up his gourd making three sand clones so Zaku was surrounded on all sides.

"You're all out of sand," Zaku gloated foolishly. "And even if you do have a couple of clones, I haven't seen you do anything that doesn't involve sand yet. Besides, I can stop you," he declared, waving his arms in emphasis.

"We shall see," Gaara replied shortly. He blinked and the three sand clones quickly dispersed and the sand making them up headed straight for Zaku.

Zaku held up his hands to face his left and right and shot off enough air pressure to beat back most of the sand. Unfortunately he only had two hands and could not move quickly enough to stop the third wave of sand from completely enveloping him.

"Die," Gaara ordered before the sand crushed him.

"Well that was certainly messier than any of our other fights," Obito noted. "Anyone who has yet to fight should be warned to steer clear of the blood: it isn't very hygienic and is very slippery. Next up is Naruto versus Yoroi."

"Hey Gaara, great job," Naruto said as he passed Gaara on his way down to the floor for his match. "Zaku's air pressure thing was completely unexpected, but you didn't let that slow you down."

"Of course," Gaara nodded. "Good luck in your match."

"I don't need luck!" Naruto insisted boldly. "I have the threat of an entire year full of Springtime of Youth hanging over my head!"

"And that is…bad?" Gaara questioned.

Naruto shudder. "You...have no idea."

Once Naruto had made his way to his opponent, Yoroi said, "This almost isn't even worth my time…."

"You know," Naruto said thoughtfully. "It's been quite awhile since anyone's said that to me. I don't actually remember when the last time was, although I think it was probably Sasuke who said it. I used to hear it all the time, though…it really brings back memories. Not good memories."

"You may be the Hokage's son," Yoroi acknowledged. "But your lineage alone won't help you defeat me."

"You know, you're so sure that I can't beat you and I don't even know what it is that you do," Naruto confessed.

"You don't?" Yoroi looked slightly annoyed. "I can absorb Chakra. Just by touching you, I can suck out your physical and spiritual energy. Do you really think you can beat me without letting me touch you?"

To his surprise, Naruto burst out laughing. "That…that's your special ability? Really?"

Now Yoroi was really annoyed. "Yes, really. Why?"

"Oh, nothing, I just…wow, I have a great match-up. If this were the finals I might be more concerned, but since I just need to beat you and don't have to worry about showing off, I might as well see if I can beat Kankuro for the title of 'Lamest Match Ever'," Naruto replied.

"Hey!" Kankuro protested. "The minute he drops the puppet thing he finds something else to start on me about…"

"It's your own fault for not taking the match seriously," Temari chided.

"It was just the preliminaries," Kankuro told her.

"And now you're not in the finals," Temari responded.

"I had expected more from you, Naruto, but if you just want to stand there and let me absorb your chakra until you pass out, then I'm certainly not going to stop you," Yoroi declared, rolling up his sleeves.

"You can try," Naruto said, holding his arm out.

Yoroi grabbed Naruto's arm and started absorbing his chakra.

After five minutes or so had passed, Sasuke called down, "You're not seriously just planning on letting him absorb your charka until he passes out, are you?"

"He is going to be the one passing out, not me," Yoroi corrected but everyone ignored him.

"I kind of have to," Naruto informed him. "It's the only way to make this match lamer than Kankuro's."

"Why are you trying to do that again?" Sakura asked.

"Because he's an idiot," Sasuke said automatically.

"Because I can," Naruto said with a shrug.

"So basically what Sasuke said then," Kakashi concluded.

"You guys are the worst team ever!" Naruto complained.

"We already established that awhile ago," Kakashi pointed out. "But surely we've gotten better?"

"A little," Naruto grudgingly admitted. "But that's really not saying much, all things considered."

With a cough, Yoroi suddenly collapsed.

"So Yoroi passed out from what appears to be chakra overload," Obito announced. "So it looks like the winner is…Hokage-sama, do I really have to let him pass? He literally did nothing but stand there for ten minutes."

"He's still standing while his opponent is unconscious," Minato pointed out. "No one said the preliminary matches had to be epic. In fact, getting matches like these out of the way is the whole reason we have preliminaries."

"Fine," Obito sighed. "The winner is Naruto."

"Did I at least manage to have a lamer match than Kankuro did?" Naruto asked hopefully.

Obito shook his head. "Sadly, no."

"Why not?" Poor Naruto sounded so disappointed.

"Because your match lasted two thousand times longer than Kankuro's," Obito replied. "The next match is Shikamaru versus Misumi."

"This is so troublesome," Shikamaru complained. "Can't I just forfeit?"

"Choji already asked me that question," Asuma pointed out. "And if I didn't let him quit then I can't let you quit. It wouldn't do to show such blatant favoritism, now would it?"

"I think he's still unconscious," Shikamaru replied. "Come on, he'll never know."

"You know, you could forfeit anyway," Kankuro pointed out.

Shikamaru yawned. "Nah, too troublesome."

"How did someone as lazy as you make it as far as the preliminaries?" Temari fumed. "I bet next you're going to say that walking down the stairs to the match is too 'troublesome'."

"Not that you mention it-" Shikamaru began.

"This is for your own good," Temari interrupted as she shoved him off the balcony.

"Why is it that every time you say you're going to do something for someone's own good, it seems to lead to bodily harm to a member of my team?" Asuma inquired.

Temari shrugged. "I'm from Suna; that's how we roll."

"So since we all know that Shikamaru is going to somehow manage to stall until he tricks Misumi into getting caught in his shadow, do you guys want to go get lunch?" Naruto asked.

"Are we even allowed to leave?" Sakura wondered.

Kakashi shrugged. "If Naruto leaves three clones and henges two of them to look like you and Sasuke, you are."

"That's not being allowed to leave, that's tricking them into thinking we're still here!" Sakura objected.

"Same thing, really," Kakashi said dismissively.

"It's all very well and good for you two, but my match is next," Sasuke told them.

"You could always stay here and talk to someone else," Naruto suggested.

Sasuke thought about it for maybe half a second. "…Let's just hurry, shall we?"

----

"We should probably head back soon," Naruto said after downing his sixteenth bowl of ramen.

"Why is that?" Kakashi asked.

"My Sasuke clone just excused himself to go to the bathroom before his match," Naruto explained. "Shikamaru won, by the way."

"So if Sasuke doesn't get back soon people are going to get the wrong idea," Kakashi concluded.

The door suddenly slammed and Naruto glanced over to where his best rival was sitting not ten seconds ago. "Where's Sasuke?"

"He took off running the minute you mentioned his match," Sakura replied. "I don't think he even heard what Kakashi said.'

"I suppose this means we should get back as well," Naruto said, clearly reluctant. As he laid his money on the table he called, "Hey Ayame, if anyone asks, we were never here, alright?"

"Whatever you say, Naruto," Ayame said absently.

By the time the saner members of Team Seven – not that that was really much of an accomplishment – arrived back at the prelims, Tenten was busy hurling weapons at Sasuke, who was blatantly cheating by using the Sharingan to avoid them.

Of course, when Naruto mentioned this aloud, Kakashi predictably responded with a, "Having a Kekkei genkai is not 'cheating', Naruto, and even if it were we're ninja. That's kind of the point."

"I'm just saying that being able to see someone's attack before they even use it and thus dodge it is SO unfair. Not to mention that three days of whatever sick and twisted thing they can come up with, the very hard to stop fire, or getting possessed by that god," Naruto insisted.

"And using the Kyuubi ISN'T?" Sakura asked.

"…I don't use it every five seconds," Naruto shot back. "In fact, I never use it if I can avoid it."

"So if Sasuke refrained from using the Sharingan unless he needed to, you'd be more okay with it?" Kakashi asked.

Naruto nodded vehemently. "Exactly."

"Although one could always argue that your stamina, regeneration, and huge amount of chakra are thanks to the Kyuubi," Sakura said.

Naruto pointedly ignored that.

"Katon: Gōkakyu no Jutsu!" Sasuke said the minute there was a pause in the weapon-throwing before blowing a huge fireball Tenten's way. When she jumped out of the way, Sasuke appeared behind her and kicked her into the wall.

"Wow, that attack was actually good for something for once," Obito marveled. "I mean, it still didn't hit anything, but…Anyway, winner Sasuke. The next match is between Kiba and Kin."

"Are you ready for this Akamaru?" Kiba asked.

Akamaru barked happily.

"That's not very nice, Akamaru," Kiba chided.

Akamaru barked again.

"Yes, I KNOW it's not a real village, but that doesn't mean you're supposed to come right out and say it," Kiba argued.

"…You just did," Kin told him.

"What?" Kiba looked up. "Oh, sorry. Akamaru can be a little tactless sometimes."

"Whatever," Kin sighed. "Here goes," she announced, throwing a senbon at him. When she did, a bell started to ring.

Kiba froze. "Oh, God no…"

Kin paused. Had he figured out what she was planning? Impossible, it had barely even started!

"I hate bells…" Kiba grumbled. "Are you going to do that the whole match?"

Kin nodded. "Yes."

"Is she allowed to do that?" Kiba demanded.

Obito shrugged. "I don't see why not. It's either part of her attack or else she just really likes bells and there are no rules against bringing your own music."

"Well there should be," Kiba muttered. "I've got to end this quickly before I get a migraine…"

Akamaru transformed into a Kiba clone and the two of them promptly began to pummel Kin. She did a decent job blocking the attacks, but there were two of them and one of her and she wasn't a taijutsu specialist like they were.

"Can you even move?" Obito inquired after she lay on the ground for a solid minute.

"No," Kin admitted.

"Do you want to give up?" Obito continued.

"NO!" Kin said, sounding horrified.

"Well, too bad. If you can't move you can't fight so the match goes to Kiba," Obito announced.

"Good," Kiba said. "Does that mean we can stop with the bells, now? They were getting so annoying that I was finding it difficult to move towards the end."

"That was a side-effect of her attack," Shikamaru helpfully corrected him. "It was supposed to immobilize you if the match went on long enough."

"…I knew that," Kiba insisted.

"Regardless of that, could we please stop the bells?" Obito asked. "Kiba's right, it's kind of getting annoying and we still have one match left."

"Sorry," Kin said and the bell sound stopped.

"Thank you. Now, Lee and Dosu, you're up," Obito called.

Lee was too excited to take the stairs and instead chose to jump off the balcony.

Once Dosu arrived normally, Lee smiled and pulled out his Good Guy pose.

"May the flames of your youth burn brightly in this match," Lee said politely.

"I have no idea what that means and even less desire to," Dosu said bluntly.

"That's not very youthful," Lee said, shaking his head sadly. Then he moved.

"He vanished," Dosu said, sounding confused.

Lee reappeared right in front of him just in time to kick his opponent in the chest. Instead of giving Dosu a chance to recover, Lee appeared again behind him. "It's not over," he whispered as he grabbed Dosu around the waist and hurled towards the ground.

"Initial Lotus!" Lee shouted before the spinning cyclone that was the pair of them hit the ground. Lee let go at the last second and jumped away. Dosu was not that lucky.

Usually Lee was only supposed to use that when protecting a precious person, but he'd seen Dosu fight in the forest and needed to take him out before he got a chance to use his sound attacks. Once he did that, there would be little chance of winning as he had yet to get a chance to train to fight while disoriented.

Obito waited for a moment but when Dosu showed no signs of getting up, he went to go check on him. "He's out," he informed everyone. "He's alive but he broke quite a few bones. Match goes to Lee."

Tears of joy started to rain down Lee's face.

"Lee!" Gai shouted as he jumped onto the floor of the arena. "My adorable student! I knew you could do it!"

"Gai-Sensei!" Lee cried back, touched.

Gai embraced his favorite student. "Lee!"

"Gai-Sensei!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-Sensei!"

"You know," Neji remarked, a little annoyed. "He lectured me for winning."

Tenten – who had regained consciousness rather quickly – shrugged. "Lee's way was more youthful, I guess."

"It's not actually humanly possible to be as 'youthful' as those two," Neji pointed out.

"Well, you asked," Tenten replied.

"Good for Lee," Sakura said, smiling. "He deserves this."

"And there is no way in hell WE deserve THAT," Sasuke said vehemently, pointing to the still-embracing pair.

"You know, Gai displays the most blatant favoritism I've ever seen," Kakashi noted. "How come no one ever calls him on it but no one ever lets me live the Sasuke thing down?"

"Because I didn't really care at the time?" Sasuke offered.

"Because Gai and Lee are always so happy and enthusiastic and if anyone else tried to keep up, it would kill them?" Sakura suggested.

"Because his other students didn't suck?" Naruto guessed.

"He waited an extra year to enter them!" Kakashi protested. "If I had another year you and Sakura would have been at least half that good! Well, probably…maybe…"

Chapter Text

"Okay, now that the preliminary matches are over, Hokage-sama will be explaining the third and final phase of the exam, which will take place one month from today," Obito announced.

"Why a month from now?" Kiba asked.

"Because some of you have shown everything you have in the preliminary matches and need time to learn some new techniques and others have been injured and need the time to recuperate," Obito answered. "So in that regard, I supposed Naruto doing nothing but standing there was actually good thinking."

"Of course," Naruto nodded sagely.

"Want to bet that that didn't even occur to him?" Sasuke asked.

Sakura snorted. "I may have been taught by Tsunade-sensei; that doesn't mean I have her gambling addiction or lack of common sense when it comes to taking bets."

"A little support would be nice, team," Naruto huffed.

"What?" Sakura asked innocently. "We're not disputing that it was a smart move; we just don't think it was an intentional one."

"That said, if anyone should do anything that…" Obito struggled for the most tactful way to phrase it, "uninspired in the actual finals, I'm telling you now: you're not going to pass."

"Quite right," Minato agreed. "Now, the third part of the exam is an elimination-style tournament. This tournament will be open to the public and many important foreign leaders will also be attending, which is another reason for the delay. Even if you do not win your match, if the judges – which include both myself and the Kazekage – feel you are qualified then you will pass. This means that anywhere from zero to all ten of you could potentially become chuunin. Still, winning is a good idea as you will have more chances to impress the judges and the winner usually ends up coming off better in a fight. Remember, though: brute strength isn't all that's required to be a chuunin. You must also show some skill in strategizing, dealing with the unexpected, when it is better to temporarily retreat, and above all you must meet a minimum sanity requirement. I know many of the best shinobi are often rather unbalanced so the bar isn't very high, but we've learned the hard way that dangerously unstable genin who go on to become dangerously unstable chuunin and have access to more power is rarely, if ever, a good thing. Any questions?"

"What, exactly, is the 'minimum sanity requirement'?" Gaara spoke up.

"We look down on spontaneous killing of allies, maniac laughter, a personal issue you habitually let get in the way of your fights, and anyone more youthful than Maito Gai," Minato replied. "Any other questions?" No one said anything, so after a moment, he continued with, "Anko's going to be coming around with a box full of paper slips. You are each to draw one and the number you have will determine your match-ups in the tournament."

"Don't worry, Gaara," Naruto assured him. "ANKO met the MSR. Barely, I'm sure, but still."

"MSR?" Temari asked.

"Minimum Sanity Requirement," Naruto responded.

Anko stepped forward with aforementioned box and went around to the ten genin still in the examination and had them each pick a number. Kiba noticeably tensed when she got near him, but Anko did no more than smirk at him, probably because both her fiancé and Yondaime were watching.

"Alright, one-by-one I want each of you to tell me what number you picked and Ibiki will let you know where you've ended up in the tournament," Minato instructed once they were finished.

"One," Shino began.

"Nine," Kiba said.

"Three," Naruto said.

"Seven," Sakura said.

"Ten," Sasuke said.

"FOUR!" Lee shouted.

Neji rolled his eyes. "Eight."

"Six," Temari said.

"Two," said Gaara.

Shikamaru yawned. "Five."

"Okay…" Ibiki said, filling in people's names by their number. "That means the first round is Shino vs. Gaara, Naruto vs. Lee, Shikamaru vs. Temari, Sakura vs. Neji, and Kiba vs. Sasuke."

Naruto gulped and quickly stepped to the other side of Sasuke but Sakura was too busy gaping in horror to do anything to him for jinxing her. For the moment, at least.

"The winner of the first match will get a bye-" Ibiki started to say.

"Wait, I thought there were no byes?" Kankuro interrupted. "Didn't the proctor say that back when what's-his-name quit? Why wouldn't they have to fight themselves?"

"That's only if there were an odd number," Obito explained. "Ten people is a nice, even, number so a bye is acceptable in this case."

"You people are all insane," Kankuro said flatly.

Temari elbowed him. "Be more polite to the people who can make our attempts to become chuunin a lot harder."

"Why?" Kankuro asked. "I'm already out."

"But I'm not," Temari reminded him. "AND I have to fight the laziest person I have ever met! How in the world am I supposed to make that match awesome?"

"Sorry," Kankuro apologized.

"As I was saying," Ibiki continued, glaring darkly at Kankuro for daring to interrupt him, "the winner of the second match faces the winner of the third and the winner of the fourth match faces the winner of the fifth. After that, the winner of the first and last match of the second round will face each other while the winner of the second gets a bye and then the two still in the competition will face off."

"Damn," Sasuke swore.

"What's wrong?" Naruto asked, still hiding behind him.

"If I win all my fights, I have one more match then my opponent," Sasuke explained.

"Sucks for you," Naruto said flippantly.

Sasuke turned and glared at him. "I wouldn't be so uncaring towards my human shield if I were you."

Naruto risked a glance at Sakura and saw that she had sufficiently recovered from her shock and was advancing menacingly on him. "I'm sorry! Please don't let her kill me!"

----

"So all of your kids made it to the finals," Obito noted as the two of them sat in Kakashi's living room once the exam had officially been halted for the month.

Kakashi sighed mournfully. "Yeah…they did."

"That's a good thing," Obito reminded him. "You wanted them to make it…didn't you?"

"Of course I did!" Kakashi snapped.

"Good, because for a second there I was starting to worry that you were trying to infect them with the Springtime of Youth and if that were the case, well…" Obito trailed off dramatically. "I just don't think I would have known you anymore."

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "I'm not that evil as to wish that on somebody."

"Although forcing them to do it is another matter entirely," Obito said sarcastically.

Choosing to ignore the sarcasm, Kakashi nodded. "Exactly!"

"So why are you so upset if you got what you wanted?" Obito asked. "They can't pass the exam if they're not in the finals."

"Sasuke can beat Kiba, no doubt about it," Kakashi explained. "I think Naruto can beat Lee, but even if he can't he'll give a good show. Sakura, however…it's not like I don't have in the girl, because I DO, it's just…she's up against Neji. The only way this would be worse was if she were up against Gaara."

"Well, that's something, right?" Obito said, trying to be optimistic.

"I guess," Kakashi conceded. "But she's going to lose. And badly."

"You didn't tell her that, did you?" Obito asked anxiously. "Because even if you think she doesn't stand a chance, encouragement is a lot more productive than discouragement."

"Unless the person being encouraged is Sasuke and the subject is revenge," Kakashi murmured. "And then it is a very bad idea, indeed, no matter how much Anko might want a kindred spirit…"

"So you didn't tell her, did you?" Obito repeated.

Kakashi shook his head. "Didn't need to. Why do you think she attacked Naruto after the match-ups were announced?"

Obito shrugged. "She didn't pass the minimum sanity requirement?"

"No, she does," Kakashi assured him. "Especially after she integrated that split personality of hers."

"What's this about a split personality?" Obito asked, concerned.

"It's all gone; no need to worry!" Kakashi insisted.

"If you say so," Obito said, still sounding suspicious.

"She's sane enough," Kakashi said dismissively. "But still…Neji."

"He seemed skilled from what I saw," Obito agreed. "But then again, his fight was over in two hits, so it is entirely possible that that Suna guy was just really pathetic."

"He's not," Kakashi reported. "And it's not just that Neji's insanely good."

"Then what is it?" Obito prompted.

"He's Gai's student," Kakashi responded.

"Ah," Obito said knowingly. "You don't want to lose to your Eternal Rival."

Kakashi groaned. "Not to sound like Neji or anything, but it's seriously starting to seem like I'm fated to be Gai's 'rival.'"

"You're the one who ignored his speech about youthfulness when you first met and convinced him you were 'hip'," Obito pointed out.

"What can I say?" Kakashi asked rhetorically. "I was feeling nostalgic."

"Nostalgic?" Obito queried, puzzled.

"And if that weren't bad enough," Kakashi said loudly, ignoring the question. "Naruto's fighting Lee, who is also Gai's student and is, what's more, his protégé. If either of them lose – or God forbid, both – I will NEVER live this down. Ever."

Obito was quiet for a moment. Then, "So should I start looking into long-term missions now or closer to the task itself?"

Kakashi threw a pillow at him.

----

"Tsunade-sama?" Sakura asked, walking up to her once and hopefully soon-to-be mentor at her office in the hospital.

"Yes?" Tsunade asked, gratefully looking up from her stack of paperwork.

"My name is Haruno Sakura and I've made it to the final part of the Chuunin Exam," Sakura began. "I'm up against Hyuuga Neji and I'm really going to need all the help I can get."

"Why come to me?" Tsunade asked neutrally. "I'm a medic and that won't do much good against a Hyuuga."

"Not if you have any standards of ethics, no, it won't," Sakura agreed, thinking of Kabuto. "But this isn't just about the Exams."

"Really?" Tsunade raised her eyebrows. "I think I recognize your name. You're on Kakashi's team, right?"

Sakura nodded. "I am."

"I've heard that you're intelligent and have a strong spirit," Tsunade remarked. "And also that if you don't make chuunin he's making you train with Gai for a year. That seems like a pretty strong incentive."

"The strongest," Sakura admitted. "But that's not my only reason. If I don't pass this time, there will be other times. I'd really like to pass this time, for my sanity if nothing else, but I can handle it if I don't. I intend to be a medic, though, and I know you're the best. Even if you can't help me with Neji – which I refuse to believe, just so you know – you'll be able to help me help my team when all of this is over."

Tsunade studied her for a moment. "It's not easy to train a medic-nin, you know. Medical ninjas require different skills compared to ninjas who focus on fighting. You must have every aspect of your chakra control refined to perfection, study a large amount of specialized knowledge, have the ability to apply that knowledge and never give up…"

"I know," Sakura said seriously. "It's not like I know nothing the subject. I've studied quite a bit and have put in a lot of hours at the hospital since I've graduated. All things considered, I'm pretty good at it. But I could always be better and I need to be better, because God knows Naruto and Sasuke don't actually understand the meaning of 'you can't do it', 'you're going to get yourself killed', or 'you're in over your head'."

A small smile came to Tsunade's lips. "Is that so?"

Sakura nodded vehemently. "Oh, you have no idea. And now with Orochimaru after Sasuke…I mean, I know he's in custody, but I can't help but worry. They're so reckless…it's like they're TRYING to get themselves killed and it's up to me to try and stop them."

"Alright," Tsunade agreed. "I'll train you. But I'm not taking it easy on you from now on," she warned.

Sakura beamed. "Excellent! The finals are in only a month, after all."

----

"My teammates and I passed the preliminaries," Sasuke announced.

Itachi looked up from the scroll he was reading. "Congratulations."

"You don't sound very surprised," Sasuke noted.

"I'm not; you're very talented. You don't sound very excited," Itachi countered.

"It's just the preliminaries," Sasuke explained. "I'm going to have to fight Kiba – no big deal – then either Neji or Sakura, then Gaara, then either Naruto or Lee all within a couple of hours."

"You don't have to win the tournament in order to pass, you know," Itachi pointed out.

"You did!" Sasuke burst out. "On your first try when you were ten."

"I was also a genin for three years as opposed to your three months or so," Itachi reminded him. "But this isn't about what I did; this is about you."

Sasuke sighed. "I know. I just really, really need to pass this. Desperately."

A small smile crossed Itachi's face. "So I've heard. I've also heard you have a month before you have to be ready. Would you like me to help you?"

"Yes," Sasuke said practically before his brother finished offering. Some things never did change.

----

"Train me," Naruto ordered.

"Not interested," Jiraiya said, scribbling away on his notes.

"You're my godfather; you have to be interested," Naruto said, rolling his eyes.

"I don't remember signing anything," Jiraiya insisted.

"That doesn't necessarily mean you didn't," Naruto claimed. "For all you know my dad slipped you the form while you were busy ogling the girls at the onsen."

"That sounds more like something Kushina would do," Jiraiya mused.

Naruto just shrugged. "Well, since the godparents are generally decided upon prior to the baby being born, she presumably had a say in it, too, so that very well could have happened."

"I've got research to do; get your dad to train you," Jiraiya said.

"My dad's kind of busy being the Hokage and orchestrating the exam," Naruto pointed out.

"Then get Kakashi to train you," Jiraiya tried again.

"He threatened to send me to the closet pervert," Naruto complained.

"Ebisu's not that bad," Jiraiya felt compelled to defend his fellow pervert, even if he was closeted about it.

"Not when it comes to the basics, no, but I've already long-since mastered those," Naruto informed him.

"Then what do you want me to teach you?" Jiraiya challenged.

"The cool stuff," Naruto replied promptly.

Jiraiya raised his eyebrows. "The cool stuff, huh?"

Naruto nodded eagerly. "And I want to sign a summon contract."

"You've got grand ambitions, kid," Jiraiya said fondly.

"So will you do it?" Naruto asked hopefully.

"I'm going to need some incentive," Jiraiya hinted.

"I'll show you my Hāremu no Jutsu," Naruto offered.

"Absolutely not," Minato cut in. "I am not having my son going off anywhere with someone he could only convince to train him through seduction. Especially not my thirteen-year-old son."

"You're no fun," Naruto huffed.

Minato rolled his eyes. "Excuse me for being a responsible adult."

"Yeah, that's really annoying," Naruto complained.

"Just train him, okay?" Minato asked. "I might be around for a little while, but things are really hectic right now."

Jiraiya sighed. "Fine…but if he wants to sign with the toads, I'm going to need to get him drunk. You know how it is."

"I'm going to need to be there to supervise that," Minato warned.

"What? You don't trust me?" Jiraiya asked, looking wounded.

"You know I do, Sensei. On the other hand…you're really not the best with kids."

"Minato-sensei!" Kakashi called, running up to them, Ibiki in tow.

"Kakashi?" Minato looked a little confused. "What's wrong?"

"Orochimaru," Kakashi said shortly.

Minato and Jiraiya both became much more focused while Naruto stayed quiet and hoped they wouldn't remember they weren't supposed to talk about things like that in front of him.

"Did something happen with the interrogation?" Minato demanded. "Did you learn anything?"

"That's just it: we never finished it," Ibiki said.

"Why not?" Minato pressed.

"I left the room for something – I don't even remember what – and when I got back all of the ANBU guards were dead and Orochimaru was gone," Ibiki recounted.

"Orochimaru managed to escape?" Jiraiya asked, alarmed.

Ibiki shook his head. "Not alone," he said grimly.

"What do you mean?" Minato asked.

"I found this note on the interrogation table," Ibiki said, handing said note to Minato.

"Dear shinobi-san," Minato read aloud, "Tobi is needing Ero-Hebi-Sempai so Tobi went and got him. Sorry if you need him too, but this does not mean Tobi is not a good boy! –Tobi."

"…The hell?" Jiraiya said eloquently.

"If Orochimaru has an accomplice powerful enough to break him out of the T & I then it's probably the Akatsuki," Kakashi theorized. "They would be a lot more powerful than his little collection of Lost Boys."

"But what's he planning?" Jiraiya wondered. He suddenly seemed to remember Naruto was there. "Hey, kid, I'll train you but now's really not the best time. Meet me here tomorrow, okay?"

"Okay," Naruto agreed reluctantly before leaving.

Madara was back. Crap. Naruto wasn't sure why, exactly, but he knew it couldn't be good. Now what was the best way to break the news to Sasuke without triggering his revenge impulse?

Chapter Text

"So did you find out if you got promoted yet?" Keisuke asked his daughter.

Sakura shook her head. "The exam's not over yet."

"Then shouldn't you be doing some exam-type thing?" Momoko asked.

"We're having a month-long break before the final stage, which is an elimination-style tournament," Sakura explained. "It's open to the public, so if you guys want to come, feel free."

Her parents exchanged a look.

"I'm not sure, Sakura," Momoko said slowly. "You might get hurt."

Sakura couldn't help rolling her eyes. "That's kind of comes with the territory, Mom."

"I know that!" Momoko exclaimed. "But knowing and seeing are too different things and it would just make me worry more."

"On the other hand, this seems to be a pretty big deal and I've heard all sorts of foreign dignitaries are going to be arriving," Keisuke noted. "How do you think you're doing so far?"

"My team and I have been doing pretty well," Sakura said modestly. "But the next part is testing us individually and I'm up against Neji."

"And that's…bad?" Momoko asked cautiously.

"He's insanely talented," Sakura replied. "But I'm going to give it my all anyway and hope that even should I lose I'll put on a good enough show to pass anyway."

"You should be more confident," Keisuke told her. "I'm sure you'll do fine."

"Yes, you've worked very hard these past few months and you should be proud of yourself," Momoko agreed.

"I better do more than 'fine'," Saruka said. "Otherwise…that much Springtime of Youth will haunt me forever…"

"What on earth is the 'Springtime of Youth'?" Keisuke wondered.

Sakura shuddered. "Trust me; you don't want to know."

"I will never understand ninja," Momoko declared, shaking her head.

"That's probably for the best," Sakura told her. "Now I have to go as Naruto called a team meeting before I have to meet with Tsunade-sama." She probably should have left already, but Naruto had given her a heads up about the subject matter and she was just as uncertain about how to break the news to Sasuke.

"The medic?" Keisuke asked. "She's training you?"

Sakura smiled triumphantly. "Yeah, she is."

----

"What in the world was so important that it couldn't wait until after training?" Sasuke asked. Kakashi wasn't there yet, but he didn't have all day so he figured they could just start without him seeing as how NARUTO was the one to call the meeting.

"Um, well…" Naruto trailed off.

"Yeah, it's…it's really big," Sakura told him. "And we're actually not quite sure how to let you know this…"

"You could try 'just spitting it out'," Sasuke suggested.

"We could," Naruto agreed. "But with such a delicate topic as this that might not be the most tactful way of handling the situation."

Sasuke snorted. "What do you know about tactful?"

"Not much," Naruto admitted, "which is why if even I don't think that's the best away to handle it, it really isn't the best way."

"Not to mention that we're not sure how you'll react," Sakura added. She paused. "No, scratch that. We're almost positive we know exactly how you're going to react and that's why we don't want to tell you."

"Then don't tell me," Sasuke said. "Or at least work out how you're going to do it. In the meantime, I really do need to get started on my training-"

"No!" Naruto and Sakura shouted at the same time.

Sasuke raised his eyebrows. "What's this? One would almost think you don't want me to get stronger. You aren't afraid I'm going to try and leave to seek vengeance on anyone do you?"

"Perpetually," Sakura replied. "But that's not it. It's just…something big has happened and you're going to find out sooner or later and we'd rather you hear it from us."

"Then tell me," Sasuke ordered, beginning to sound impatient.

"Well, you see…" Naruto began, sounding rather nervous. "Hey, look, it's Gaara! Hi, Gaara!"

Gaara, who had been passing by the bridge they were standing on, stopped and turned to face him. "Yes?"

"So how have you been?" Naruto asked.

Gaara blinked. "Since yesterday?"

Naruto looked a little sheepish. "Um…yes?"

"I know I can win my matches," Gaara said simply. "But to not pass the 'minimum sanity requirement' would make this entire trip a waste of my time."

"Not a complete waste, hopefully, since you met us and we're awesome," Naruto objected.

"I still want to be a chuunin," Gaara told him.

Naruto shrugged. "Fair enough. What were the things Dad mentioned? No being more youthful than Gai, I think you're safe with that."

"There was also no maniac laughter," Sakura added. "Do you do that?"

"Very rarely," Gaara replied. "And not since I've been here."

"There was also 'no killing allies'…how many people have you killed since you got here?" Naruto asked.

Gaara thought about it for a minute. "The man I fought in the preliminaries and the three from the Forest of Death," he said finally.

"Well, Zaku wasn't from Suna and if they didn't expect deaths in the Forest they wouldn't have made us sign the waiver," Naruto decided.

"But wait…didn't Kiba say his team got a scroll from those corpses? If he only killed one team, then how did they get a scroll?" Sakura asked.

"Maybe the team had already gotten two scrolls and Temari only took the one they needed," Sasuke suggested.

"That makes sense," Sakura decided. "And the last thing would be 'don't let personal issues habitually get in the way of your fights'."

"What does that entail?" Gaara wanted to know.

"Well…" Naruto trailed off. "I guess it means that if you had a crappy childhood, don't keep bringing it up when you're fighting people or if you were dealt a rotten hand, don't stop in the middle of a fight and lecture people about how they should stop trying to fight fate because they are destined to be losers. In your case, I suppose that would mean not mentioning any resentment you might feel about being a Jinchuriki."

Gaara nodded. "I can do that. It's only a month, after all."

"That's the spirit!" Naruto cheered.

"Goodbye," Gaara said before continuing on his way.

"Think he can do it?" Sakura asked as she watched him leave.

Naruto shrugged. "No idea. But it should be good practice for actually becoming sane and – with luck – Kazekage in the future."

"If you're quite done with that, I would like to remind you that I have a rather one-track mind and still want to know what was so goddamn important," Sasuke brought them back on topic.

"We know," Sakura muttered.

"Yo," Kakashi waved as he appeared in a whirl of leaves. "So how did he take it? Do we need to put anyone in protective custody?"

"How did I take what?" Sasuke demanded.

"We…didn't actually get around to telling him yet," Naruto admitted.

"I can see that," Kakashi said, looking horrified. "Well, in that case: good luck and I'll be back in twenty minutes."

"Like hell you will!" Sakura said, grabbing his arm. "You know more about it than either of us, anyway."

"You know, I'm sure that whatever it is cannot possibly be as bad as the scenarios I'm envisioning," Sasuke told them.

"It's probably worse, actually," Naruto disagreed. He took a deep breath. "Madara broke Orochimaru out of custody."

There was silence for a moment.

"…Sasuke?" Naruto asked, waving a hand in front of Sasuke's face.

"Maybe he's in shock," Kakashi suggested.

"Could you repeat that?" Sasuke said, his voice low.

"I would rather not," Naruto confessed.

Sakura sighed and did as requested. "Madara broke Orochimaru out of custody."

"So Orochimaru is no longer in Konoha," Sasuke stated.

"No, he probably is," Kakashi corrected. "We just don't know where he is and he must have come here for a reason and unless that reason was annoying Ibiki, he still has whatever mission he's on to accomplish."

"This wouldn't have happened if you had just let me kill him," Sasuke felt compelled to remind them.

"How did I know he was going to say that?" Sakura asked rhetorically.

"We had no way of knowing he would escape!" Naruto burst out. "No one escapes because anyone who could doesn't get captured in the first place."

"And Madara rescued him?" Sasuke continued as if he didn't hear them.

"He did," Kakashi confirmed.

"How do you know? Did anyone see him?" Sasuke demanded.

"Well, no," Kakashi admitted. "But he did leave a note that said, 'Tobi is needing Ero-Hebi-Sempai so Tobi went and got him. Sorry if you need him too, but this does not mean Tobi is not a good boy! –Tobi' so we felt reasonably sure that this was him. Unless there is actually a real Tobi running around and joining the Akatsuki that acted just like Madara did when he was pretending to be him."

"That's highly unlikely," Sakura noted.

"Right," Sasuke nodded. "If you'll excuse me…"

"Wait, where are you going?" Naruto demanded, somewhat panicked.

"I'm going to go find Orochimaru and Madara and then I'm going to kill them," Sasuke answered as he continued to walk away.

Naruto, naturally, decided that there was only one thing he could do in this situation: tackle Sasuke.

"What the hell, Naruto?" Sasuke growled. "They are dangerous enemies of Konoha and since they are actually in the village I wouldn't even have to leave."

"You might be able to beat Orochimaru right now," Naruto said, still not getting off of his friend. "I think you'd stand a far better chance after you train with Itachi this month and if the three of us are with you, but you could – potentially – pull it off. Just the same, there is no WAY that you could beat Madara right now. You remember how hard it was before and we were sixteen. We were way stronger than we are now and the match could have gone either way. Besides, Madara has the full power of the Akatsuki on his side, now. Do you REALLY want to face Orochimaru, Madara, Sasori, possibly Deidara, Kisame, Kakuzu, Hidan, Zetsu, Konan, AND Nagato all at once?"

"It'll be fine," Sasuke insisted.

Naruto groaned. "Oh God, he's delusional."

"You started him on the topic of revenge; what do you expect?" Kakashi asked rhetorically.

Naruto glared at him. "It's not my fault Madara showed up!"

"This isn't just some stupid grudge," Sasuke bit out. "Madara didn't just screw my family over by creating an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the village and summoning the Kyuubi to attack right before Naruto was born prompting my brother to feel the need to kill everyone and spend the next eight years playing at being evil in Akatsuki but he also destroyed half the village, made Naruto a pariah, formed Akatsuki, and had Konoha completely destroyed as well as 'declaring war' on everyone. If he's not stopped, he'll just do it again. That man won't stop, can't stop until he destroys Konoha."

"That's very sound reasoning," Sakura applauded. "But you're still only saying that because you want vengeance."

"…No I'm not," Sasuke denied.

"Maybe we can compromise," Kakashi suggested.

Sasuke glared at him. "Compromise? How can we compromise? I want to kill both Madara and Orochimaru. You don't want me to go off and kill either of them. So, would I only get to kill one of them or something? And get off of me, Naruto!"

"Not until you promise not to run away," Naruto said stubbornly.

"I won't leave to seek vengeance until after this conversation is over," Sasuke promised.

Naruto didn't budge. "And the conversation isn't over until we say it's over."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Fine, whatever."

Naruto got up and, looking highly affronted, Sasuke climbed to his feet.

"It's too bad Kiba wasn't here," Sakura mused. "He could have done a lot with that." Feeling the full force of both boys' glares on her, she quickly amended, "I mean, it's a good thing Kiba wasn't here. He never would have let that go."

"We could let you kill one and not the other," Kakashi agreed once that was sorted out. "But that's really only the most basic form. And it's not like we don't want you to kill them-"

Sasuke snorted.

"We just don't want you to kill them right now," Kakashi continued, studiously ignoring him. "Whatever they're planning, it's not going to take place today because if they're going to do something during the exams when there's so much increased security, they're going to wait until the Tournament like Orochimaru did with his little invasion. Take this month, train obsessively, and then if and when they try anything, you can be there to try and seek vengeance."

"Let me get this straight…you're okay with a plan that involves me seeking vengeance?" Sasuke couldn't believe it. "What happened to all that talk about how it won't make me feel better and it will just end up causing a circle of hatred or whatever?"

"That's 'chain of hatred'," Naruto helpfully corrected.

"I don't care," Sasuke said bluntly.

"I still believe that," Kakashi informed him. "But since there doesn't actually appear to be anything on the planet capable of convincing you that revenge is a bad idea even though after all you've been through on your epic quest for it, you should be thoroughly convinced of it, I'm just advocating delaying it until you get a chance to get stronger and it will serve a greater purpose than just your need for vengeance."

"They could very well invade Konoha again and seek to destroy it and you think it's a better idea to wait for that to happen than just taking them on now?" Sasuke sounded incredulous.

"Yes," Kakashi said simply.

"Explain," Sasuke ordered.

"If that happens all of Konoha's finest will be out to try and minimize the damage and take out the invaders and it won't just be a thirteen-year-old against two of the most dangerous people Konoha has ever produced," Kakashi pointed out.

"And God knows if Kakashi and I didn't do everything we could to stop you from dying in the name of revenge, Naruto would never speak to us again," Sakura added. "Especially since we'd gotten you past that in one piece before we came back."

Naruto nodded. "It's true; I probably wouldn't."

Sasuke tilted his head back as he tried to make a decision. On the one hand, he really, REALLY wanted revenge. On the other, he didn't want to die before he got it. Or after, really, seeing as how his life was actually pretty good at the moment. Not to mention that he didn't trust his team not to go back AGAIN and this time blame the massacre on some fictional person and then have Kakashi 'kill' him so he wouldn't even be able to have a target for his hatred… "In the spirit of compromise," Sasuke decided. "I'm willing to wait until the end of the exam. After that, if they haven't tried anything, I'm going after them."

Kakashi nodded. "Fair enough. But if they're not still in Konoha, you can't leave until we get assigned a mission outside of the village because you're not allowed to become a missing-nin again."

"Agreed," Sasuke said grudgingly.

"Did…did we just manage to talk Sasuke into postponing his revenge?" Sakura couldn't believe it.

"I put it off three years after I left Konoha because I needed to train under Orochimaru," Sasuke pointed out. "What's one more month?"

"We are officially miracle workers," Naruto decided.

"Let's meet up for ramen tonight after you guys are done with your training to celebrate," Kakashi suggested.

"Hey…it just occurred to me that even though you're our teacher and all the other Jounin-sensei's are teaching their students personally, you couldn't be bothered to help us so we had to find our own instructors!" Naruto realized.

"I offered Ebisu," Kakashi defended himself.

"But you already MORE than made sure that we knew about tree climbing and water walking," Sakura reminded him. "And doesn't he specialize in teaching the basics?"

"Well, it was kind of a given that Itachi would work with Sasuke and Jiraiya IS Naruto's godfather…" Kakashi replied.

"What about me? Tsunade had no reason to agree to train me and you didn't even help with that!" Sakura countered.

"Hey, isn't it enough that I'm your cover for everything you know that you're not supposed to?" Kakashi demanded.

His three students exchanged looks. "No."

"Sasuke," Itachi called out. "Are you almost done? We need to start training."

"Yeah," Sasuke nodded. "We're done here. They just…" he hesitated, wondering if he should say anything. "They were letting me know that Orochimaru escaped."

Itachi blinked. "Did he? I hope you're not planning on going after him."

"Of course not," Sasuke said, sounding shocked. "I have the upcoming chuunin exams to worry about. I can worry about taking down Orochimaru once I've gotten stronger."

"I'm glad," Itachi said approvingly. "That's a very mature outlook for you to take."

"Mature?" Naruto repeated incredulously as the two Uchiha walked away. "Is he kidding?"

"Well, since he doesn't exactly want to come off too strong about how much he wants to kill the one supposedly responsible for the Massacre to the person who was actually responsible for it and doesn't think it's anyone else's business, we're probably the only ones who get to see how obsessed he really is," Sakura pointed out. "In fact, given that he can vent to us, he probably comes off as quite mature and well-adjusted to everyone else."

Kakashi said what everyone was thinking. "Now THAT is a frightening prospect."

Chapter Text

"I should get going, too," Sakura said. "If Tsunade-sensei is even remotely as scary as I remember, I do not want to be late."

"I think you're overreacting," Kakashi told her. "After all, with all her concern about not appearing her true age, her reaction to Naruto christening her 'baa-chan' was relatively mild. In fact, I think you actually reacted harsher to Naruto being an idiot or insulting Sasuke and that was BEFORE you had training under her."

"Yeah," Sakura acknowledged. "But the MSR wasn't put into play until after Tsunade-sensei made Jounin."

Kakashi shuddered at the possible implications.

"Bye Sakura-chan," Naruto said as he also set off towards where he was to meet his teacher. Unlike Sakura, however, he knew Jiraiya wouldn't care if he was late and might not even notice depending on whether or not he was feeling 'inspired.' He really hoped that they weren't supposed to be training by the onsen again as if that was the case Jiraiya would want the chance to let loose his…well, not really inner, but sometimes thinly disguised, pervert and if nothing else the first day wouldn't be one with a lot of downtime.

"Why are you following me?" Naruto asked without bothering to turn around.

Kakashi shrugged. "I've got nothing better to do."

"Because you can't be bothered to teach your students anything," Naruto accused.

"Is it really my fault all of my students already know the basic skills they need to have to become chuunin because they're time travelers?" Kakashi asked rhetorically.

Naruto did stop then so he could turn around and give Kakashi an incredulous look.

"Okay, so maybe it is," Kakashi conceded. "But since – as you so graciously pointed out – I'm not doing much in terms of your training this month, I should probably meet up with your father to see what he wants me to do about Orochimaru's escape and make sure everyone's convinced that the Akatsuki are involved because aside from Jiraiya, I'm really the only adult who would have any way of knowing about 'Tobi's' connection to them."

"That's disturbingly responsible of you," Naruto noted. "But then, I guess the prospect of a mass Akatsuki invasion is serious enough to warrant that."

"Indeed it is," Kakashi agreed.

"That still doesn't explain why you're following me, though," Naruto pointed out.

"If there's any chance you're getting the summoning today and, as such, are obligated to get completely wasted, your father's going to be there," Kakashi pointed out. "So by following you I can see him."

"You know, speaking of my father," Naruto said slowly. "He's supposed to be this super awesome ninja, right? I mean, I've never really seen him in action, but his reputation precedes him."

"I should think you haven't!" Kakashi exclaimed. "As one of the few responsible adults in the ninja world, he would have killed anyone that was supposed to be watching you who let you anywhere near a situation that required him to use his skills."

"That sucks," Naruto huffed. "I mean, I suppose I can appreciate the sentiment, but still…"

"Were you going somewhere with this?" Kakashi wondered.

Naruto looked puzzled. "What? Oh, right. If my father's so amazing that his entry in the bingo book says to flee on sight, why in the world would Suna – or anyone, for that matter – agree to attack the village he's Kage of?"

"Your father's Hiraishin no Jutsu is much more effective with an ally, so if they can isolate him like Orochimaru did with the Sandaime and the barrier, they would stand a much better chance of an actual fight. And if Akatsuki managed to control or replace the Kazekage, Suna's going to invade regardless of how stupid and suicidal they might think it is. Remember the rather unfortunate tendency most ninja have of seeing themselves as tools to be used?" Kakashi asked.

"True," Naruto nodded. "When did you get out of that mindset?"

Kakashi shrugged. "Well, it started when I decided my team was more important than a mission back before you were even born and culminated when I went back in time and have spent twelve or thirteen years as a close personal friend of the Hokage."

"That would do it, I guess. Hey look, it's Team Eight. Greetings Hinata, Shino, Kurenai," Naruto called out, waving.

"Aren't you forgetting someone?" Hinata asked quietly.

"Oh, right," Naruto realized. "Hi, Akamaru! Long time, no see."

"She meant me, you idiot," Kiba grumbled.

"Oh, it's the Yaoi fanboy," Naruto said, making a face.

"I am not a fanboy!" Kiba insisted. "You two are just SO not subtle."

"What are you guys doing?" Naruto asked, ignoring that.

"Hinata and I are helping Shino and Kiba prepare for the finals," Kurenai answered.

"Really? But don't they run the risk of fighting against each other?" Kakashi asked. "That's why most teams that have more than one member find different instructors for the genin that would benefit less from their personal instruction."

"Or make them find their own," Naruto muttered.

"You and Sasuke came with built-in teachers and I offered Ebisu for Sakura but she made other arrangements," Kakashi reminded him.

"Due to the nature of this tournament, Kiba being number nine and me being number one, we would not face each other until the finals and the odds of both of us making it to the final round is very small. Additionally, I would be fighting two matches before and he three so it is not like any new techniques would remain a secret and as teammates we already know each other's fighting style," Shino explained.

Naruto just stood there, gaping.

"Are you alright, Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked, sounding concerned.

"Yeah. I…I just have never heard Shino say that much before," Naruto confessed. "Ever."

"Hey, Naruto, since I'm fighting your secret boyfriend, do you have any tips for me?" Kiba asked.

"He is NOT my secret boyfriend!" Naruto cried.

"Well you've yet to come out to me," Kiba replied. "So…do you?"

"Despite the fact I want Sasuke to win, I suppose I could warn you not to do anything to trigger his revenge impulse as that's partly for my sake as well," Naruto told him.

Kiba groaned. "Too late for that. Although in my defense, our siblings are dating! That's such a wonderful opportunity to annoy him!" He didn't sound nearly as concerned as Naruto though he should be, but if Naruto managed to keep Sasuke a genin by exposing his revenge impulses, Sasuke would very likely kill him, so he let it go.

"Well then you're not going to have a fun match." Naruto turned to the other member of Team Eight that was in the finals. "And Shino, I know you didn't ask but in the interest of fairness, Gaara said that he's going to try not to kill anyone so he has a better chance of making chuunin, but don't push your luck."

Shino nodded his gratitude. "That sounds like sound advice."

"That was very thoughtful, Naruto-kun," Hinata told him, smiling.

Naruto shrugged. "Yeah well…We should let you get back to your training."

----

After Sakura had arrived, she found out that Tsunade was in the middle of a surgery so Shizune had given Sakura a very thorough examination on the basics. She could tell that she impressed the dark-haired girl and afterwards she was quickly shown to the Slug Sannin.

"Before we begin," Tsunade said," do you have any idea what you want to specialize in? We don't have time to make you an expert in what you choose to do, but keeping in mind how you'd like to utilize your skills is always a smart move."

"Not really," Sakura confessed. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"Not without seeing you in action, no," Tsunade said, shaking her head. "Some medic-nin focus on animal, medical ninjutsu can be used to kill through the creation of deadly poisons or by using you extensive knowledge of the humanity anatomy to deliver powerful blows to sensitive locations. I myself have a reputation for being able to cure any illness that comes my way."

"I heard from Sasuke that you managed to make the Mangekyou Sharingan safe for him to use," Sakura said, sounding a little awed despite herself.

Tsunade nodded and Sakura could see a glimmer of pride in her eyes. "Took me the better part of two years to do, but I managed it."

"So what are we going to start with?" Sakura asked eagerly.

"You have the basics mastered which means we won't have to waste time covering those. Instead, we can work on making sure that you're going to be able to stay conscious and uninjured long enough to make use of them," Tsunade informed her innocently.

Sakura knew better though and her eyes widened in horror. "You mean?"

Tsunade nodded. "That's right," she said gleefully. "We're going to work on your taijutsu which means that for the next few days you're going to be my own personal punching bag."

Sakura groaned. It probably STILL wouldn't be enough to beat Neji.

----

"I've heard that you've done extensive work on taijutsu with Kakashi these past few months," Itachi started off by saying. "Of course, I'd still like to see that for myself to see how much progress you've made. Your speed, in particular, is very important. But first, do you still have any questions about the Mangekyou Sharingan, or do you think you have that down?"

"I have a question about the Tsukuyomi," Sasuke said. "I know it is one of the if not THE most powerful genjutsu in existence, but what can it do? When I was using it on Orochimaru, I trapped him in a looped memory of Ino and Sakura dragging me with them when they went shopping."

Itachi raised his eyebrow. "That was what you did? He was comatose for nearly a week."

Sasuke shrugged. "It certainly traumatized ME."

"It will only get worse when you get older," Itachi promised him. "Fortunately, Hana's not very interested in shopping."

"Lucky," Sasuke muttered.

"To answer your question, the Tsukuyomi can serve as anything really as it traps the target in an illusionary world that is completely controlled by the user. While it only takes a few seconds for the user to complete, for the target it can seem like days. I've found that either torture the target or make them relive a traumatic event over and over for what seems like days is highly effective," Itachi told him.

"So it doesn't even have to be used as torture," Sasuke mused.

"I suppose not," Itachi agreed. "But it's such a powerful and chakra-draining technique that unless you needed to quickly incapacitate your target or wanted to traumatize them it isn't worth using. Anything else you might want to do with it, there are probably less powerful genjutsu for."

"Does it really matter what you use to traumatize them?" Sasuke asked. "Because, say, if I felt the need to go after my teammates, I could show them a world where everyone was eating ramen but they couldn't have any or take them back to their fangirl days, respectively. Or if it were Kakashi or Obito, I could just overrun them with squirrels as that seems to remind them of some sort of traumatizing mission they had in the past."

"If you knew enough about them you could certainly do that," Itachi nodded. "Although if they are your opponent, you probably won't get the chance to learn that much about them." He paused. "And one of these days we have to get that story from them."

----

"Okay, I want you to show me what you can do and then, if you've improved enough, at the end of the month I'll show you how to do the Rasengan," Jiraiya promised. "Even though your dad would probably kill me. Ah, well, I have a moth to talk him around."

"Actually, Ero-Sennin, I already know how to do that," Naruto told him.

Jiraiya's eyes widened. "What? How? Your father's WAY too overprotective to teach you himself OR to let you anywhere near me anytime I might have been drunk enough to try and not remember doing so afterwards?"

"Kakashi showed me how," Naruto lied.

Jiraiya's eyes widened even further. "But…Kakashi can't do it."

Naruto shrugged. "He still knew how to teach it to me."

"Prove it," Jiraiya demanded.

"Okay," Naruto said, forming his Wind Release: Rasengan. He quickly threw it at a nearby tree.

"Hey, watch it," Kakashi, who was talking with Minato not five feet away from said tree, said.

"Sorry, I can't hold onto it for too long because it cuts my hand," Naruto said.

"What?" Minato demanded. "How did my son learn the Rasengan and modify it? I mean, I've made some adjustments over the years, but never in front of him and none that were self-injuring."

"I heal fast, see," Naruto held up his hand to show the already healing cuts.

"My bad," Kakashi said, making sure to back away quickly. "But hey, I only described the basic Rasengan you showed me all those years ago. The size and inclusion of his wind affinity was all on him."

Minato shook his head. "You know, the other Jounin instructors teach their kids how to use their clan abilities or control their chakra…"

"Oh, I taught them plenty of chakra exercises, didn't I, Naruto?" Kakashi asked, grinning evilly.

Naruto nodded quickly. "MORE than enough."

"Still, you're kind of a bizarre teacher," Minato said.

"I had to have gotten it from somewhere," Kakashi said pointedly.

"I blame Jiraiya-sensei," Minato said quickly. "He's a bad influence."

"And now to cement your opinion of me as a terrible influence, if the kid's got the Rasengan down so well he not only saw room for improvement but actually DID manage to improve it, he's ready to sign the toad summoning scroll," Jiraiya spoke up.

"I brought the sake," Kakashi announced, taking out a summoning scroll and activating it.

Minato shook his head ruefully. "I can't believe I'm allowing this. I must be the worst parent ever…"

Naruto snorted. "Not even close, Dad."

Chapter Text

Kakashi was mildly drunk. He had wanted to stay completely sober, but as Naruto, Jiraiya, Gamabunta, and even Minato all drinking, he felt obliged to have some as well. Of course, he was glad he did because by the time Naruto managed to get drunk – which took quite a bit of sake thanks to the Kyuubi – he probably would have had a panic attack were he sober. Jiraiya and Gamabunta, despite apparently being regular drinking bodies, were also quite drunk while he and Minato were only slightly intoxicated. Minato had refrained from overindulging as he didn't want to set a bad example by getting wasted in the middle of the day while Kakashi was just worried that Naruto would end up spilling the beans on the fact that they were from the future. Of course, the boy was so drunk that no one would believe him, but Team 7 occasionally acted odd enough that if anyone attempted to figure out what was up with them he didn't want Naruto to inadvertently point them in the right direction.

"Ero-Shennin, I missed you when you died," Naruto said solemnly.

"Died?" Jiraiya blinked a couple of times. "Who died, kid? I didn't die."

Naruto laughed suddenly. "I know. Isn't that greeeeeeat? I love you, Ero-Shennin…" With that he stood shakily, wobbled over to his godfather, and practically collapsed on his lap.

"If only you was a girl," Jiraiya shook his head ruefully. "And not twelve. Or Minato's kid."

Gamabunta chuckled throatily. "So if only he was the exact opposite of himself? You'd be better off wishing that about someone with less to change."

Jiraiya thought about that for a minute. "Well…I do like blondes…"

"I am not hearing this," Minato moaned. "Jiraiya-sensei likes blondes…"

"Don't be too put out, Minato-sensei," Kakashi tried to console him, doing his best to ignore the buzzing in his head. "From what I can tell he likes most anything female and of age and Naruto is neither."

"No, he's not," Minato agreed. "He can do the Rasengan, though. How long did it take you to teach him?"

"Oh, it took him a good month, I'd say. I told him what I knew about it when we left for Wave," Kakashi lied.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Minato demanded. "That was a good two months ago."

"I…You're very overprotective and I wasn't sure if you'd be okay with me teaching him such a risky jutsu," Kakashi covered.

"Once he had it down I couldn't complain," Minato argued. "Well…much."

"And then there was what happened after you found out just a little about what happened in Wave," Kakashi continued.

Minato looked stricken. "You let my son die! That was completely different!"

"Maybe I didn't want to take that chance," Kakashi sniffed. "And what you should be doing is asking Naruto why he didn't tell you as he wouldn't get in trouble if you didn't like my teaching methods." There, now that was Naruto's problem. Kakashi was even reasonably sure that he deserved it as the boy was currently causing all sorts of problems for him.

"And then he told me that I didn't understand because our shituationsh weren't ezactly the shame. Like anybody's gonna have the ezact same shob story! Isn't it enough we were both orphans?"

"What? You're not an orphan," Jiraiya pointed out.

"Remember, Naruto, 'orphan' means both parents are dead, not just one," Kakashi quickly stepped in.

"I know that! I'm not shtupid," Naruto pouted.

"No, but you are extremely drunk," Kakashi countered.

"Am not!" Naruto declared, climbing unsteadily to his feet. "Shee?" Of course, then he promptly fell over so the effect was rather lessened.

"You didn't teach Sasuke or Sakura the Rasengan, did you?" Minato asked, worried that Kakashi had decided to up and teach A-rank jutsus to every minor he interacted with. Team 7 was his first attempt at teaching anyone who hadn't been in ANBU, after all.

"Of course not!" Kakashi denied. "I only taught Naruto the Rasengan because you invented it and he was going to learn it at some point anyway."

Minato looked relieved. "I'm sorry, I should have known you wouldn't be so reckless."

"…I did teach Sasuke the Chidori, though," Kakashi admitted.

"And Sakura?" Minato looked almost afraid of the answer.

"Just the taijutsu and increasing her chakra reserves. Her control is perfect, but she doesn't have enough of it for any of the heavy hitters yet," Kakashi replied.

"Hey, Kakashi," Naruto had managed to get to his feet again and stumble over to his fellow time traveler. "You know how the Chidori's shupposed to be an assassination thingy?"

"As I created it, the odds of me having that knowledge is quite good," Kakashi confirmed.

"…Is that a no?" Naruto asked after trying and failing to figure out what that meant.

Kakashi sighed, "No, that's a 'yes.'"

"No that's a yes?" Naruto didn't understand that either.

"Yes I do know that Chidori is supposed to be an assassination jutsu," Kakashi clarified.

"So…assassinations are shupposed to be quiet, so why's the Chidori sound like birds?" Naruto asked, surprisingly reasonable considered he was too wasted to walk straight.

Jiraiya and Gamabunta had apparently been playing a game of some sort as Gamabunta was loudly accusing the Sannin of cheating.

"How does he know what the Chidori sounds like?" Minato asked suspiciously.

Thinking quickly, Kakashi replied, "He saw me showing it to Sasuke. Don't worry; he and Sakura were far enough away not to be in any danger from it."

"He does have a point about it being too loud for an assassination jutsu," Minato decided.

"When you're only assassinating one person, by the time they hear the Chidori, they're already dead," Kakashi defended his prize jutsu. "Besides, if we can have orange-clad ninja, then I can have a nature-oriented killing technique?"

"What's wrong with being an orange-clad ninja?" Naruto demanded.

"It's not very stealthy, for one," Kakashi answered.

"Do I need to be?" Naruto was honestly curious.

"Ninja usually were before we settled down and formed villages," Minato replied.

"Oh. Well, that's shtupid. I'd rather be orange than stealthy," Naruto announced.

"No kidding?" Kakashi muttered.

"Hey!" Jiraiya's head suddenly shot up and he stumbled his way over to them. "Naruto's still got's to ride on Gamabunta to see if he passes the test!"

Kakashi eyed Naruto critically. "Are you sure that's such a good idea? He can barely stand."

"Not to worry, he can sit on my head," Gamabunta assured him. "Just as long as he doesn't fall off."

"I can do it!" Naruto insisted. "I did it before and I can do it again!"

"We've never met before, kid," Gamabunta told him.

"Yeah we have! It was a long time ago, before I went back in-" Naruto started to say before Kakashi clamped a hand over his mouth.

"That quite enough of that, don't you think?" he said sternly. He really hoped Naruto could keep his mouth closed while he was riding around on Gamabunta.

"Don't worry, Kakashi," Naruto stage-whispered. "I won't give away our secret."

Kakashi smacked his forehead. At the rate this was going, he wouldn't be too sure about that.

"What secret?" Minato asked darkly. "Why are you and my son keeping secrets from me?"

Kakashi groaned. That was it. Naruto was never allowed to go drinking again.

----

Sakura could barely move after her first day of training. She was fairly certain that Tsunade had gone easier on her when she had first started in the old timeline, but then she supposed that since she had some experience this time the Slug Sannin had figured she could handle it. No to mention she only had a month to train for the Finals.

Sakura decided to take the scenic route home to try and see if she could regain enough chakra to heal herself a bit or find someplace to clean herself up as she really didn't want her civilian parents to see her and get concerned.

On her way past the barbecue place, she saw Team 10 sans Asuma eating right in front and decided that she might as well put her return home off further and say hi.

"Hey guys," she greeted them with a smile.

"Hi Foreh-Are you alright?" Ino asked, concerned. "You look like you just got the crap beaten out of you."

"I kind of did," Sakura admitted.

"Just tell me who did it and I swear to God they are going down," Ino growled.

"Oh, it's nothing like that!" Sakura assured her friend. "It's just part of my training for the Exam."

"Really?" Ino asked skeptically. "Why aren't you doing anything like that, Shikamaru?"

"Troublesome," Shikamaru murmured, resting his head on the table.

"What?" Ino demanded.

"He said 'troublesome'," Choji helpfully repeated.

"I knew that!" Ino insisted.

"Then why did you ask what he said?" Choji asked reasonably.

"I was being dramatic!" Ino shook her head. "My teammates have no sense of melodrama."

"And my teammates are all suffering from an excess," Sakura replied. "I think that's worse, actually."

"If you say so," Ino sounded unconvinced. She poked Shikamaru's head. "If you don't take your training seriously then how in the world do you expect to be able to avenge me in the Finals?"

Sakura froze. "A-avenge you?"

Ino nodded. "Yeah, against that Temari girl that I went up against in the preliminaries. Shikamaru's going up against her in the first round."

"Vengeance is not the answer Sas-er, Ino," Sakura amended.

Ino looked at her questioningly at the slip-up, but didn't ask about it. "I understand that I needed a wake-up call. This exam has made me realize more than anything that this is not a game, but did she really have to be so brutal about it?"

Sakura shrugged helplessly. "Suna…Suna's a different world, Ino."

"She didn't have to go out of her way to humiliate me like that," Ino pointed out. "Just being outmatched was enough."

"I know but..." Sakura hesitated. "Do you really have to use the word 'vengeance'? I kind of have a minor panic attack every time I hear that word or any variation of it."

"Why?" Choji asked, reaching for another plate of barbecue.

"Well…" Sakura trailed off. 'Talking to Sasuke about vengeance' probably counted as 'encouraging him', especially as it would be something that they temporarily had in common and Ino still liked him, even if she did seem to be making an honest effort to be more serious about being a Kunoichi.

"You normally have to say that to Sasuke, right?" Shikamaru asked. "And apparently quite often?"

"How did you know?" Sakura asked, surprised.

"He's the most likely one on your team to be after vengeance after what Orochimaru did," Shikamaru replied with a shrug.

"He is so tragic!" Ino swooned.

"He also doesn't like talking about it, so unless you want to piss him off, don't mention it," Sakura advised.

"Of course I'm not going to do that!" Ino exclaimed. "What do you take me for – oblivious?"

----

Sasuke was sitting in a clearing in the woods trying to improve his control over Amaterasu. Given the fact that if he made a mistake, he'd have a forest fire on his hands and it hadn't rained in awhile, that was some pretty powerful incentive to not mess this up.

"I'm telling you, Lee, it's probably just someone practicing a jutsu," Neji's voice sounded from a little ways behind him.

"But Neji, forest fires are so unyouthful!" Lee protested. "Don't you agree, Tenten?"

"I think it doesn't matter what I think as we're going to investigate either way," Tenten responded as Team Gai stepped into view.

"Ah! It is my eternal rival!" Lee said, pointing at Sasuke dramatically.

Neji raised an eyebrow. "I thought I was your so-called 'eternal rival'."

"Careful, Neji, you sound jealous," Tenten teased.

"I'm not," Neji insisted, glaring at her. "And it looks like I was right about the jutsu practice."

"Do not worthy, Neji. Just because Gai-sensei only has one eternal rival does not mean that it is not possible to have more than one," Lee assured him.

"Since when am I your eternal rival?" Sasuke wanted to know.

"Since Sakura revealed that she was madly in love with you, of course!" Lee declared.

"She said she 'used' to like me," Sasuke reminded him. "And that we're not going to worry about our hormones until after we make Chuunin."

"And I will fight you since we both made it to the Finals," Lee nodded. "I remember."

"Lee…" Tenten said. "The way the tournament is set up, you'll only fight Sasuke if you both make it to the final round."

"Then make it to the final round I shall!" Lee decided. "What about you? Will you meet me there?"

"I'll definitely make it," Sasuke said. "But whether I'll see you there or not is another story. Your first opponent is Naruto, after all, and he's my eternal rival."

"How youthful!" Lee gushed.

"You guys will need to get past me first and I simply do not see that happening," Neji interjected.

"You wouldn't meet Lee until the final round if you made it that far but I will definitely defeat you. If Sakura doesn't do it for me," Sasuke said almost as an afterthought.

Neji snorted. "The pink-haired girl? She may have beaten Hinata-sama but I could have done it in a fraction of the time. She is fated to lose that match."

"Twenty-seven minutes," Tenten announced.

"What?" Sasuke asked, confused.

"Tenten keeps track of how long Neji goes without talking about fate," Lee explained.

"I don't believe in fate," Sasuke declared.

"It does not matter if you believe or not," Neji said. "What is meant to be will be."

"That is such an easy thing to say," Tenten spoke up. "After something is already done it is the easiest thing in the world to claim that there was no other way for it to have played out even though a different choice would have resulted in a different outcome."

"True," Neji allowed. "But a different choice was not made because it was not fated to be made."

"I actually agree with Tenten on this one," Sasuke said. "I can all too clearly see a world where Kakashi didn't lead an angry mob by my house the night of a Massacre so everyone would know Orochimaru was responsible and so my brother would be blamed and I'd spend the rest of my life trying to kill him. Just think…if Kakashi had taken a different path that night…or not pissed off so many people…"

"But that didn't happen," Neji said decisively. "Because that's absurd."

"You're telling me," Sasuke murmured.

----

Sasuke and Sakura were already waiting at Ichiraku Ramen when Naruto bounded in, as full of energy as ever. Kakashi trailed after him, holding a hand in front of his eyes.

"Is he alright?" Sakura asked, concerned.

"Why yes, I'm feeling fantastic. In fact, I'm feeling so great I might just have to go take down an Akatsuki member singlehandedly," Kakashi snapped.

"Don't mind him," Naruto said cheerfully. "He's just cranky because he's hung-over from earlier when we initiated me into the Toad Summoners this morning."

"Then why aren't you?" Sasuke asked.

Naruto gave him a strange look. "Because I was initiated into the Toad Summoners. I just said that. I'm thrilled; I missed being able to summon them."

"No, I meant 'why aren't you hung-over'?" Sasuke clarified.

Naruto shrugged. "I don't know. Fast metabolism?"

"It's probably the Kyuubi," Kakashi hazarded a guess. "And I officially hate him."

"Being a Jinchuriki is not all fun and games, you know," Naruto lectured sternly. "Even if it is next to impossible to experience chakra exhaustion, you have amazing stamina, heal ridiculously fast, and apparently don't get hung over."

"That's not the only reason," Kakashi informed him.

"What did I do?" Naruto asked, clueless.

"Every time you turned around you kept mentioning something from the future!" Kakashi burst out.

"I did?" Naruto looked sheepish. "My bad."

"Naruto, how could you?" Sakura demanded.

"I was drunk!" Naruto reminded her.

"And it will never happen again," Kakashi vowed.

"Aw…" Naruto sulked.

"So what happened? What did you tell them?" Sakura asked anxiously.

Kakashi shrugged. "I managed to convince them for the most part that Naruto was just really, really drunk but they may remember this later and put two and two together if we're not careful. And frankly, Naruto, you blowing a ton of money on sake to get drunk is simply not worth the risk."

"Why didn't we ever tell anyone, anyway?" Sasuke asked.

There was a silence.

"Well, it's kind of hard to believe," Naruto said at last.

"Yeah, but we know enough that we shouldn't that we could convince people easily enough," Sasuke pointed out.

Naruto shrugged. "Kakashi hadn't said anything when I got back."

They looked to Kakashi, since he'd been back a decade before Naruto.

"I just didn't want to," Kakashi said simply.

"That…that's ridiculous," Sakura said.

"Perhaps," Kakashi replied. "But it's working for us so Naruto can't drink. You two shouldn't either, just in case."

Sakura snorted. "My parents would kill me." She paused. "Although while we're on the subject of things we're not allowed to do, Ino's apparently on a revenge kick right now, so we need to keep her away from Sasuke."

"No arguments here," Sasuke agreed.

"And now we've got more things that are more important to Sasuke than revenge!" Naruto beamed. "I feel like we're really getting through to him!"

Chapter Text

The day of the Chuunin Exam Finals arrived at last. Concerned about Minato's safety since not only Orochimaru but at the very least Madara had their eye on Konoha, Kakashi talked the Hokage into letting him into the Kage box as a guard. It would have been easier to convince Minato to have either Rin or Obito in there as well given there were his team, but Obito was proctoring and Rin was on healing Chuunin-hopefuls duty. Instead, Kakashi had eventually managed to persuade Minato to have Itachi has another guard. Hopefully the three of them would be enough should anything happen.

Sasuke, Sakura, Naruto, Temari, Gaara, Shikamaru, Kiba, Neji, Lee, and Shino were all gathered on the arena floor for some last-minute instructions from their proctor…who would be showing up any time now, they were sure.

"Where is he?" Sakura asked irritably, turning to Sasuke.

"How should I know?" Sasuke snapped back.

"You live with him!" Sakura reminded him.

"He left the house before I did," Sasuke told her. "So honestly, I have no idea."

"What do you think, Naruto?" Sakura asked.

"I think...I can't believe Sasuke actually showed up on time," Naruto said, shaking his head in bemusement. "Because, you know, last time-"

"Shut up!" Sasuke ordered. "That wasn't my fault."

"You never did tell us what took so long," Sakura remarked.

Sasuke shivered. "You're better off not knowing, believe me."

"Tell me!" Naruto demanded.

"You know how Kakashi always had the most idiotic excuses for why he was late?" Sasuke asked rhetorically. "Well, it turns out that while he did spend most of that time staring at the memorial he also got into some of the most bizarre situations…that poor tree…"

"What happened?" Sakura pressed.

But Sasuke refused to say anymore on the subject.

Frustrated, Naruto turned to Gaara. "So how was your month?"

"I haven't killed anyone in thirty days," Gaara informed him. "I'm actually at a loss as to when the last time I went seven days without killing anyone was."

Naruto winced. "That's great, but you might not want to mention that in front of any of the people involved in the Exam or that might get back to my dad. Most genin don't kill anyone so to do it so frequently might make him wonder."

Gaara nodded. "Duly noted."

"It was kind of funny, though," Temari confided. "Poor Kankuro is still convinced you guys did something or made a doppelganger or whatnot."

Naruto feigned innocence. "I don't know what you're talking about. I noticed you guys because of those evil soulless puppets of Kankuro's and my empathy for you guys having to deal with something like that on a daily basis might have propelled me to talk to you, but I love meeting new people. We really did just treat you guys like everybody else."

"Exactly," Temari stressed. "That just doesn't happen."

Naruto looked confused. "Oh, because you guys are the kids of the Kazekage? Well, I'm the son of the Hokage, so that's not really such a big deal for me either…"

"Never mind," Temari said, shaking her head ruefully. "Did…my opponent for the first round just fall asleep?"

Naruto quickly glanced over at Shikamaru, who had sat down and seemed to be snoring. "It would appear so," he agreed.

"Oh this is SO not fair," Temari complained. "How did I get stuck with such a lame opponent?"

"If you think he's so lame it should be an easy victory, right?" Naruto asked her.

" 'Easy' and 'impressive' are not necessarily one and the same and there is no way me taking down someone who won't even stay conscious NOW will ever be seen as 'impressive'," Temari replied.

"Well…there will be other matches?" Naruto offered.

"Being late is so unyouthful," Lee said mournfully. "I really want to have my most youthful match with Naruto."

"Hello everyone, sorry I'm late," Obito said, strolling into the arena. "There was this tree and…well, you're probably better off not knowing."

"Definitely better off if it was what I think it was," Sasuke agreed quietly.

"Oh God, not another story you refuse to elaborate on!" Sakura groaned. "We haven't even gotten the squirrel story yet."

"To be fair, I don't know what happened either," Sasuke told her. "But I will…so help me, I will…"

"Okay, before we start I just want to make sure everyone remembers who they are fighting," Obito said.

"How could someone forget who they're fighting?" Kiba demanded. "You couldn't possibly specialize your training specifically around your first opponent if you don't know who it is."

"I don't know who I'm fighting," Naruto said. "I know Sakura's fighting Neji, Shino's against Gaara, Sasuke and Kiba have a grudge match, and Shikamaru's with Temari of course…no, wait I guess I do know who I'm fighting after all."

"By process of elimination," Shino noted.

Naruto shrugged. "What works, works."

"You realize Lee just mentioned he was fighting you, right?" Neji asked.

Naruto shook his head. "Nope, I must not have been paying attention."

"So what else is new," Shikamaru murmured.

"Okay since Naruto just reminded anyone else who might have forgotten of the match-ups I'm going to move on to reminding you that there are no rules here except that you need to keep the fight down here and no firing into the crowd. Seriously, you have no idea what that would do to our tourist industry…" Obito shook his head at the thought.

"So aside from giving our fights geographical boundaries and not killing potential customers, anything's fair game?" Temari asked.

Obito nodded. "Absolutely. The matches go until either one party gives up or dies. If it's clear that one party cannot continue to fight, I will call the match. If you do not stop after I do so, you will be disqualified. Also, if a death looks completely senseless, it will be allowed but it will really hurt your chances of passing the MSR so I wouldn't recommend it. Now unless there are any more questions, the first fight is Gaara vs. Shino, so everyone else clear out."

----

"So how do you think Gaara will do?" Minato asked the Kazekage.

"I have full faith in his abilities," the Kazekage responded with confidence. "I may not know much about his opponent, but I am certain that Gaara can come out victorious."

"Shino does bugs," Kakashi announced. "And while his victory would undoubtedly be amusing, I'm still puling for Gaara."

"Really?" Minato glanced back at him. "But Shino is from Konoha."

"Yes…do you find it at all strange that of ten finalists there are two from Suna and the other eight are from Konoha?" the Kazekage asked.

"There are always more candidates entered from the nation that hosts the Exam," Minato responded.

"From what I understand, six of your eight are rookies, though," the Kazekage pointed out. "This is simply unheard of."

"We have a very talented group of rookies this year," Minato explained.

"Clearly."

"To answer your question, Hokage-sama, I bet on Gaara," Kakashi replied.

"You should have more faith in your village," Minato chided.

"I have plenty of faith," Kakashi insisted. "But I just don't see how bugs can take down sand armor."

"You also bet on the Kazekage's daughter," Itachi reminded him.

Minato frowned disapprovingly.

"Well, yeah…" Kakashi sounded sheepish. "But in my defense, Shikamaru doesn't really seem to want to be here so I can't imagine he'll be willing to face three matches."

"You are one of the Jounin-sensei's who has a team still in the Exam, yes?" the Kazekage asked.

Kakashi looked mildly surprised. "Yes, yes I am."

"Is it really fair of you to be placing bets then, given that you have intimate information on at least one of the genin?" the Kazekage continued.

"Three, actually," Kakashi corrected, a hint of pride in his voice. "And as far as I'm concerned, if it's legal, it's fair. Besides, I wasn't even really planning on betting on all of them…"

"Let me get this straight," Minato said, raising his eyebrows. "Naruto knows the Rasengan and signed with the toads and Sasuke knows the Chidori and has a Mangekyou Sharingan and you wanted to bet against them?"

"Well, not them," Kakashi admitted. "Sakura, though…But Itachi wouldn't let me."

"You need to have more faith in your team," Itachi insisted. "If she finds out that her own Jounin-sensei has no faith in her, it will have a debilitating effect on her performance. And if she does not pass, Sasuke is in for a very rough year."

"It's not like I don't have faith in her," Kakashi defended himself. "I do, it's just…Neji."

"Hyuuga Neji?" the Kazekage perked up. "I had heard he was quite the prodigy. He is the one who beat my other son, Kankuro, so handily?"

"Neji is quite gifted," Minato acknowledged.

"I'm glad," the Kazekage remarked. "From what I've gathered, Kankuro's defeat was shameful so I would at least prefer the victor be skilled."

"Sakura beat Neji's cousin Hinata," Itachi pointed out. "And they are young enough to rely heavily on the same family style."

"Neji's a lot better than Hinata," Kakashi countered. "Although you are right, she does know how to beat that, just whether or not she can…She trained with Tsunade, hopefully that will have given her some results."

"Betting against one's team is far more dicey than betting on them," Minato informed him.

"Why's that?" Kakashi asked.

"Because if she does lose then people will cry foul and claim she threw the match," Minato explained.

"Sakura? Throw a match? Not a chance," Kakashi declared. "And like I said, I couldn't bet against her so I put a little down in her favor. The odds are so against her that on the off chance she wins, I'll make a killing…"

----

"May our fight be honorable and impressive," Shino said politely once the arena floor had been cleared of everyone but him, his opponent, and the proctor.

Gaara merely nodded.

"Ready…begin!" Obito said, before stepping back.

Gaara and Shino stared at each other for a moment, both preferring not to be the one to make the first move. Then Gaara sent an experimental wave of sand at Shino, who merely stood there. The sand enveloped the Aburame up to his neck and Gaara slowly tightened the sand around him.

"It cannot be that easy," Naruto complained. "Come on Shino, do something!"

"Shino's battles are always kind of boring," Kiba confided. "But that doesn't mean that he's going down on the first hit."

Sure enough, as Gaara continued to squeeze Shino's body, it broke apart to reveal it had been but a bug clone. The real Shino, standing a good twenty feet away from his dispersed clone, sent those bugs Gaara's way, only to be stopped by Gaara's automatic sand shield.

"So wait…the fight is going to consist of Gaara being unable to get at Shino because he'll keep switching them out for bugs and Shino not being fast enough to get through to Gaara?" Sakura summarized.

"Looks like it," Sasuke agreed. "Which won't be very much fun to watch."

"At least it might take awhile," Shikamaru spoke up. "The whole exam is so very troublesome."

"Then why are you even here?" Temari demanded.

"Because dealing with Asuma, Ino, and – scariest of all – my mother if I don't make it is even more troublesome," Shikamaru explained with a yawn.

"Oh, I will show you troublesome," Temari growled.

"Save the flirting for the match, Temari," Naruto advised absently.

The Suna Kunoichi turned incredulous and angry eyes on him and he quickly ducked behind Sasuke.

"Hide me, oh human shield," Naruto implored.

Sasuke couldn't believe this kind of thing kept happening to him. "Hn."

"Stay back," Naruto told Temari, pushing Sasuke in front of him. "He's too cute to die!"

Kiba immediately perked up at this. "Is that a-"

"Not. One. Word," Sasuke said dangerously.

"Difficult match or what?" Kiba continued without missing a beat. "If they can't get to each other than they can't end the match or even really showcase their skills."

After a few more false starts on both of their ends, Gaara seemed to come to a decision. He sent his sand out again, slow enough for Shino to replace himself with a clone as he had been doing, but this time instead of just trying to immobilize him, he wrapped Shino's bug clone completely in sand.

Before Shino could do anything, Gaara clenched his fist tightly and said, "Sabaku Sōsō."

Instead of the customary blood and gore this technique usually brought, when the sand imploded it left little black shredded remains from the hundreds of bugs forming the Shino clone everywhere.

"My bugs…" Shino said quietly.

"I may have no plans to kill you," Gaara said slowly. "But I have no compunctions about completely wiping out your army of insects. If you keep using them to shield you then I will destroy them all. Once I do that, I will be able to attack you directly."

Shino stood silently for a moment contemplating the news. Finally, he said, "There is nothing to be done then. Why? Because this match is not worth the destruction of my colony. I forfeit."

"The winner is Gaara," Obito announced. "The next match is between Naruto and Lee…as soon as we clear out all the bugs."

Naruto met Gaara on the stairs back to the where the rest of the Chuunin hopefuls had gathered. "Wow, that match looked so incredibly frustrating I was getting annoyed."

"Yes, I think I am beginning to understand why an impenetrable defense like mine would get to be wearisome for my opponents," Gaara agreed. "Fortunately, he cares too much for those bugs of his to go through with a senseless slaughter or it may have taken even longer."

"I notice you didn't make any attempt to kill him until the end when you knew it would be a bug clone," Naruto commented.

Gaara nodded. "I have lasted a month without blood I can last three matches."

Naruto grinned. "I'll appreciate it when I see you in the finals."

Gaara nodded again, looking thoughtful. "It's strange…the longer I go without killing the harder it is…but it's easier, too."

"What?" Naruto didn't get it.

Gaara just shook his head. "Never mind."

"Tough break, Shino," Kiba said once his teammate had rejoined them on the balcony that served as a waiting area.

"Indeed," Shino agreed.

Kiba reached down to scratch Akamaru behind the ears. "I understand, though. If it came down to a match or Akamaru's life…well, I wouldn't even have to think about it."

Akamaru barked happily.

"Ah, Sasuke?" Kiba said.

"Yes?" Sasuke asked, wondering why the possibly more annoying version of Naruto persisted in speaking to him.

"Akamaru said that should you try, he's going for the throat," Kiba warned.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Oh, relax. I'm not going to hold your dog hostage."

"Yeah," Sakura chimed in. "Because while people might be okay with bugs biting it, dogs are adorable and something tells me that a title like 'puppy-killer' would be enough to scare off even the most rabid of fangirls."

"Although, if you were going to use him in the fight-" Sasuke began. Instantly, half the room glared at him. "Kidding, God…"

"You shouldn't make jokes, Sasuke," Naruto said, shaking his head. "It freaks me out."

"Come on, that can't be nearly as disturbing as you cross dressing," Sasuke shot back. "Especially you cross dressing as That Man."

"Yeah, that never happened, remember?" Naruto reminded him. "And don't make me start on your drag form."

The rest of the room watched in stunned silence.

"Sakura…" Lee said at last. "What kind of things do your teammates get up to in their free time?"

"The sad thing is," Sakura responded. "None of that was during their free time."

Neji 's head shot in her direction, alarmed. "You mean that was for a mission?" He had never been so grateful to be on Gai's team before.

"Well…yes," Sakura admitted reluctantly. "It's really not as bad as it sounds, though…"

Chapter Text

"So what do you know about this Lee kid, Kakashi?" Minato asked as the next pair of genin made their way to the arena floor. "He's Gai's student, right?"

"Indeed," Kakashi confirmed. "He's unhealthily devoted to youth and being exactly like Gai. He can't use chakra for ninjutsu or genjutsu so he's remarkable with taijutsu but tends to risk permanent disability or even death to prove himself."

"There's nothing wrong with risking that so long as it does not happen," the Kazekage noted.

"True, but you can't always guarantee it and too many risks could backfire," Minato countered. "So…does his emulation of Gai and fascination with the Power of Youth make him more youthful than his mentor?"

Kakashi considered the question. "Not yet. In a few years, though…"

"So he'll need to pass, soon," Minato remarked. "How are Naruto's chances?"

"I think he'll come out just fine," Kakashi replied. "But Lee's no pushover." And it wasn't like Naruto could use his Sage Mode given the only way they knew of to learn that was spending weeks with the toads, which Naruto obviously hadn't his timeline. Using Kyuubi chakra was also risky as Naruto's control wasn't the greatest and the goal was to get Lee through the fight without needing intensive care and life threatening surgery. Kakashi didn't really know much about Lee's life at present, but if the events of the previous time's Chuunin Exam were any indication, the kid could really use a break.

"That's good," Minato said. "I don't need Naruto to win the Tournament or anything, but if he doesn't make a strong showing he's going to be so disappointed."

"Kakashi must have faith if he was willing to lay down money for it," the Kazekage said idly.

"Well, that and I could never bring myself to bet on Gai's student," Kakashi confessed. "It's not like he's not a good instructor, because he is – although his training methods are completely insane – but he would never, ever let me live it down."

"You almost bet on Hyuuga Neji," Itachi pointed out.

"…But I didn't," Kakashi said finally. "And Neji being Gai's student was really what decided me in the end."

----

"May we have a most youthful match," Lee said, bowing.

Naruto bowed back. "If by 'most youthful' you mean 'impressive enough for a promotion' then I hear you."

"One question before we start…I know Sakura used to love Sasuke, but did she ever harbor feelings for you?" Lee asked.

"Well, she did confess her love to me once," Naruto answered. "But that was mostly because she wanted to kill Sasuke."

Lee blinked. "…Pardon?"

"We have an interesting team dynamic," Naruto said with a shrug.

"So it would appear," Lee agreed.

"If you guys are quite done with the small talk," Obito spoke up, "then the second match of the finals can begin."

"But…but the small talk is a vital part of my very ninja style!" Naruto protested.

"Be that as it may, Lee doesn't really look like he needs to be saved from self-destructing, so just get on with the match," Obito instructed.

Maybe he didn't. But wait until he started opening those gates…Naruto didn't remember how many of them Lee could open at this point in time, but he was fairly certain he could already open enough to turn red, which probably wasn't good for him.

Lee came at him quickly, aiming a high kick at his chest. Naruto jumped back so it only grazed him but Lee didn't give him any time to recover as hands were suddenly everywhere and Naruto didn't have time to do anything but block it.

Naruto knew that theoretically, his ungodly stamina should allow him to outlast Lee if they kept this up. The problem was, not only would it fail to showcase anything but his staying power but it also left Lee in a position to land a hit an do some serious damage.

"I don't know what this is called, but I saw that creepy kissing lady doing it," Naruto announced. He breathed wind-infused chakra into the palm of his hand, shaping it into a small ball shape whirlwind and shot it in Lee's direction.

Naturally, Lee dodged and the sphere tore a hole through the wall behind him. It was close, though, and the backlash was enough to toss the boy back several feet.

"You know," Obito lamented. "There's a reason we can never manage to get this place insured…Ah well, it's not like the repairs won't come out of your mission pay anyway."

"Who is the 'creepy kissing lady'?" Sasuke wondered.

Sakura narrowed her eyes in concentration. "I don't remember her name, but she was a Kunoichi who attacked us a few times when we were dealing with Sora."

"Sora?" Sasuke asked blankly.

"You know, that guy whose father infused him with Kyuubi chakra?" Sakura prompted.

Sasuke shook his head. "No, I really don't know. I was probably… elsewhere at the time. But let me get this straight: you guys encountered some semi-possessed guy and had to deal with some sort of kissing killer?"

Sakura nodded. "It was a bit more complicated than that, but basically."

"And you guys wonder why I left…" Sasuke muttered.

"Oh please, like that disgrace to medical-nin wasn't getting up to some even more twisted things," Sakura shot back.

"If he was then I didn't have to see it so I couldn't care less," Sasuke replied.

"Or that vampire girl," Sakura continued.

"Who?" Sasuke asked, puzzled.

"You know, the one that healed people by biting," Sakura elaborated.

"Karin wasn't really a medic-nin," Sasuke pointed out. "And she had to get bitten to heal people, not vice versa."

"Whatever," Sakura said. "It was weird. And she was creepy!"

"She actually reminded me of you when we first got on a team," Sasuke said casually.

Sakura's eyes darkened. "What?"

"Think about it. Both of you were obsessive about me, good at chakra control, violent when angry at loud annoying teammates…" Sasuke trailed off. "Although I don't believe you ever rolled around in my discarded clothing or made plans to drug other people so you could ravish me, but then, she was sixteen and you were twelve."

"Sasuke," Sakura said warningly.

Sasuke blithely ignored the warning. "But then, there were some differences too. You had pink hair, she had red. You needed to believe in what you were doing and she was more blindly loyal. On the other hand, she was never useless…"

"Seriously, it's like you want to die or something," Sakura marveled.

Lee had apparently taken the time Sakura and Sasuke were bickering to reveal his nindo to Naruto. "And so you see," he concluded. "It matters not that I have no inborn advantages for I am a genius of hard work!"

"That is amazing," Naruto, always a sucker for a sob story, gushed. "I am truly inspired. I may not be the most naturally gifted either, but I AM a genius of stamina."

"No natural advantages?" Sasuke shouted down. "What about the Kyuubi?"

"Or being the Hokage's son?" Sakura added.

"Or the fact one of the Sannin is your godfather?" Kiba joined in.

"Or the fact you always seemed to know everything before we were taught it?" Shikamaru deigned to contribute.

"Or-"

"Yep," Naruto said loudly, ignoring his rather unsupportive friends. "I did everything all by myself."

"Well then we shall have to see which is greater: my hard work or your stamina," Lee declared.

"Lee," Gai called out.

Lee immediately turned his attention to his mentor. Naruto cursed the fact that Lee was his friend and thus attacking him when he was distracted during the Exam would probably be a bad idea. "Yes, Gai-sensei?"

"Take them off," Gai ordered.

Lee's eyes widened. "Are you sure? I thought-"

"I know," Gai nodded, smiling. "But it's time to show these people what you're made of."

"I will," Lee nodded determinedly. He bent down and began unbuckling the weights around his legs.

Naruto was REALLY cursing having an honor code right about now.

"You think taking off a few paltry weights will give you enough of an advantage?" Temari asked skeptically.

"I don't know," Shikamaru said thoughtfully. "Loud and ostentatious though they may be, I don't think Gai and Lee would make such a procession about just a few pounds. Besides, they are both known to take things to the extreme."

"But those things are tiny!" Temari protested. "How heavy could they possibly be?"

Temari's question was answered as Lee casually tossed the two weights to the side as if they weighed nothing. To the surprise of most of the stadium, the weights left a huge crack in the floor and caused a large cloud of dust.

Temari blinked. "I stand corrected."

"I knew I should have made a bet," Shikamaru said absently.

"Then why didn't you?" Temari demanded.

Shikamaru shrugged. "It was too-"

"Troublesome, right?" Temari rolled her eyes. "How did I know you were going to say that?"

"You've said more than two words to him?" Kiba offered.

"No one asked you," Temari snapped.

"I don't need to be asked," Kiba declared. He cocked his head. "You know, you two would make a good couple…"

Shikamaru would have responded, but he felt secure that the Suna Kunoichi would react enough for the both of them.

"I'm sixteen! He's twelve! What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded.

"Thirteen," Shikamaru corrected.

"That's not much better," Temari insisted.

"Eh, in a couple of years in won't make a difference," Kiba said dismissively.

"Then come back then!" Temari ordered.

"Oh I will, I will…" Kiba said, an evil glint in his eye.

Akamaru barked twice.

"What? No, I don't think it's weird I keep trying to set all my friends up," Kiba denied.

Akamaru barked again.

"But Ino really would be good with that one ANBU guy. And he looks just like Sasuke but paler so it's not like she would even have a problem on that front!" Kiba objected. "And you have to admit, the thought of Lee with pink hair is enough to be rooting for Lee to get the girl…"

"Can he really understand all that barking?" Neji asked.

Shino shrugged slightly. "I do not know but it may not matter. Why? Because that boy has enough problems."

"Poor Hinata-sama…to think she's on a team with him," Neji shook his head. "And I thought Lee was bad…"

"Didn't you say something to the effect of those first two when Naruto tricked you into revealing you came back?" Sasuke whispered.

"…No," Sakura lied.

Lee was moving too quickly for Naruto to see clearly. He could see the blur and knew that if he could manage to win if he could land a solid hit, but that was proving difficult under the circumstances. For perhaps the first time in his life, he wished he had a Sharingan so he could tell where Lee would be and attack there but then he reminded himself that that would be cheating and promptly dismissed the half-formed thought.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu," Naruto said, forming the hand seals as he dodged Lee's right fist but was hit by Lee's left foot. Naruto doubled over, automatically clutching his stomach. Lee sans weights packed quite a punch. Or kick, whatever. He quickly straightened and slipped into his army of clones.

"I may not be able to tell which one is the real you," Lee admitted. "But it does not matter as one hit should dispel the fakes and I can take them out quickly enough."

"Try it," a clone challenged. For that, he was the first to go.

Naruto waited silently as Lee moved through his clones and dispelled them with ease. Fortunately, it seemed that Lee had chosen to start with the clones on the opposite side of Naruto so Lee made his way towards his real opponent last.

Having had to dispel dozens of shadow clones already, Lee was getting frustrated and was beginning to slow down. Perfect.

Naruto wasn't entirely sure he should be using this during the exam but…Gaara had killed someone and Sasuke had used the Chidori the first time and would very likely use it again so why not? It would do some damage but probably not anything near how bad Lee had been wounded after opening all those gates and being on the receiving end of Gaara's desert coffin.

"Rasengan!" Naruto cried out as Lee was dispelling the clone to his left.

Lee's eyes widened and he tried to get out of the way but it was too late. The Rasengan did not hit him head on, but it still sent him flying and his head hit the floor with a sickening crunch.

Obito waited for a moment to see if Lee would rise to his feet. When he didn't, he hurried over to see his condition. "Naruto is the winner of the match. Someone get a medic."

Immediately, the medic's standing by went to Lee's side with a stretcher.

Naruto bit his lip as he hurried up to the balcony to rejoin his friends. "Think I overdid it a bit?" he asked, concerned.

"It could be worse," Sasuke said with a shrug. "He may need medical attention, but so did half the people from the prelims. Besides, it's not like getting hit will jeopardize his chances of remaining a ninja."

"That is something," Sakura agreed, remembering that even breaking half his limbs wasn't enough to dampen Lee's insane resolve as he'd only made his condition worse in the month before the finals by trying to ignore his injuries.

"Who's up next?" Kiba asked.

"That would be me," Shikamaru said, raising a hand lazily. "I'm not really sure I want to, though. I mean, after me is Neji and then Sasuke. Who really wants to see me fight?"

"It doesn't matter who does or does not want to see you fight as you will not like the consequences if you forfeit and don't give me a chance to," Temari said, grabbing his arm and dragging him towards the stairs. "You think you know 'troublesome', trust me, you have no idea."

"While I admire Temari's determination, any match involving Shikamaru that doesn't come with some sort of external time constraint will take hours," Naruto remarked. "Do you guys want to ditch again?"

"But I'm up after the match," Sakura protested.

"HOURS," Naruto repeated.

"I don't know…" Sakura trailed off.

"I was up after Shikamaru's match during the prelims," Sasuke reminded her. "And I made it back in time."

"Yeah, but you're an Uchiha," Sakura pointed out. "Everyone wanted to see you in the Finals so they weren't about to toss you out of the prelims for being a few hours late."

"And Neji's the Hyuuga's up-and-coming prodigy and they'll want to give him a chance to shine," Sasuke pointed out. "Besides, Naruto's right: the fight will take hours."

"But so will lunch…" Sakura replied.

"I was going to say something about being shocked that Sasuke would actually agree with me, but then I realized that he would just say that it would happen more often if I was right more often so…yeah…" Naruto trailed off.

"It's kind of pathetic you can have arguments with me in your head," Sasuke said bluntly.

"And I don't even win them all the time," Naruto said sadly, shaking his head.

"Fine, let's go," Sakura decided. "Kakashi's kind of busy making sure your dad doesn't die, so he can't come, so does that mean it'll just be the three of us?"

"That's no fun," Naruto said, shaking his head. His eyes lit up. "Hey, Gaara, want to go grab lunch with us?"

Gaara blinked slowly. "But what about the match?"

Naruto waved his concerns away. "Don't worry; we've done this before. I just need to leave a few shadow clones and then one of them will dispel and let me know when the match is over. It's not really going to be very exciting, I don't think, and the only one of us that will need to rush is Sakura."

"Alright," Gaara agreed. "Where are we going?"

"Ichiraku Ramen," Sasuke and Sakura chorused.

Naruto scratched his head. "Really? I was actually going to suggest that barbecue place as I was worried you might be getting sick of ramen but…if you insist!"

----

Kakashi had turned his attention to his team the minute it was time for Shikamaru's match and so saw them depart. This was going to take awhile.

Lucky bastards.

Chapter Text

"And so the moral of the story is that you should never, ever – under any circumstances – EVER run off with a snake pedophile who has admitted to wanting your body," Naruto concluded.

Teuchi and his daughter Ayame just stared blankly at him.

"That's all well and good, Naruto," Teuchi said finally. "But what does that have to do with your theory that turning Ichiraku's into a Tsukemen shop would destroy the economy?"

"It has everything to do with it!" Naruto insisted.

Sakura sighed heavily. "That's ALWAYS the moral to all of Naruto's stories, no matter what they might be about."

"Really?" Sasuke asked innocently. "This has got to be the first I've heard of this. Too bad, it sounds like good advice."

Naruto made a face at him. "Bastard." Turning back to Teuchi and Ayame, he continued seriously, "But seriously, don't do it. Or if you do, at least leave your basic miso ramen with roasted pork fillet."

"Sure thing Naruto," Ayame agreed, eyeing him a little strangely.

"If I could get that in writing, that would be gre-" Naruto started to say.

Sakura whacked him on the head. "Their word should be enough. Stop obsessing. Besides, if worst comes to worse you can always manually combine them."

"I know," Naruto sulked. "But it's just so tr-"

"Don't you dare," Sasuke warned.

"You guys never let me do anything…" Naruto complained.

Gaara looked on with mild confusion. "You three are really friends?" he sounded skeptical.

"Not by choice," Sasuke grumbled. "They just wouldn't stop following me around and eventually I stopped caring. Why?"

"I had been lead to believe that friends acted less…" Gaara hesitated, searching for the word. "Hostile?"

"Oh, friends do," Naruto assured him. "If you don't treat your friends well, they'll probably ditch you as a friend. Or else they have huge self-esteem issues which you'll just make worse. Either way, not the best idea."

"Best friends are different, though," Sakura said. "The three of us…along with Kakashi…we have a lot of history and once that happens the dynamic tends to change. Since you're more comfortable around each other so you can tease each other more without having to worry about the other person getting offended and if someone has a problem or overwhelming obsession, they're kind of expected to open up about it. Right, Sasuke?"

"What? Sorry, Sakura, I'm just still marveling at how brilliant Naruto's moral was and wondering why no one ever told me this before. It might have come in handy, you know," Sasuke told her.

"I don't understand," Gaara admitted.

"You will," Naruto assured him. "I mean, we're your friends and we've only known you for a little over a month."

"But why?" Gaara pressed.

Naruto shrugged. Since when did he ever need a reason to add someone to his friendship collection? Something told him mentioning the existence of said collection probably wouldn't go over very well. "Because you're awesome?"

"Although I recommend not following our example in that you don't try to kill any of your friends," Sakura advised.

"You guys have tried to kill each other?" Gaara didn't sound surprised.

"Yeah," Naruto nodded. "Sasuke tried to kill me and Sakura and Sakura tried to kill Sasuke."

"And Naruto tried to kill Sakura," Sasuke added. "I'm kind of surprised he bothered because it's not like she was a threat when she came after me."

"That was an accident!" Naruto protested.

"You still made me cry," Sakura declared, crossing her arms.

"Oh come on, you cried all the time back then," Naruto pointed out. "If Sasuke had been crying – real tears, not of that creepy 'tears of blood' stuff – then that might have gotten to me. Although I can't promise I wouldn't have found it hilarious to look back on."

"Why cry real tears when you can make it extra dramatic by making them tears of blood?" Sasuke asked rhetorically.

"So you don't mess up your eyesight?" Naruto decided to answer it anyway.

"I did not cry all the time!" Sakura objected. "Only when something really awful and traumatic happened!"

"Which was…all the time back then," Naruto reminded her. He turned to Gaara. "But don't worry, we're mostly past all that now."

"Mostly?" Gaara repeated.

"In my defense, I have Sasuke on my team," Naruto replied.

"The same for me but with Naruto," Sasuke said. "And he wears orange."

"And I have to put up with that," Sakura said, gesturing to the two glaring boys.

Naruto jerked suddenly. "Sakura? It's time."

"What? I knew I wouldn't make it in time!" Sakura said, as she jumped up.

"You could have left at any time," Sasuke pointed out.

"And leave you two alone with poor, impressionable Gaara?" Sakura demanded. "Not on your life!"

"Try not to lose before we get there, would you?" Sasuke requested.

Sakura's only response was to slam the door behind her.

Gaara blinked at that. "Konoha is…not normal."

"I know, isn't it great?" Naruto grinned.

"Should we get going, too?" Sasuke asked.

"Eh, we'll get there when we get there," Naruto said dismissively. He waved Ayame back. "Can I get another bowl?"

----

Kakashi couldn't remember the last time he was so grateful for Jiraiya's books. Shikamaru's match had lasted for over four hours. And strangely enough, his kids weren't back from their lunch yet. On the other hand, maybe it wasn't so strange considering that Naruto was at a Ramen bar. And Gaara went too, and Kakashi really didn't have the faith in that boy's sanity that Naruto apparently did so it was always a possibility that he snapped and tried to kill them all. He really hoped that wouldn't be the case as that would leave to some inevitable delays, some paperwork on his part, and he'd be stuck there for hours upon end.

Oh, and he would be quite put out if his team died, of course, but they could take care of themselves just fine. Probably. At least against Gaara as they'd already beaten him once…that day, in fact, exactly one timeline ago.

"Well, that was certainly…something," Minato said, trying to be excited. "Shikamaru had a brilliant strategy and Temari certainly had some nice moves there."

"Temari was lead around for the entire match by a boy who barely moved an inch and looked like he was asleep half the time," the Kazekage countered. "I'm lucky that boy is a certified genius or Suna would have been even more embarrassed. Still, it was a sight better than how Kankuro did against the Hyuuga prodigy."

"Naruto proved it would be rather difficult to do worse. And at least she's moving on, right?" Kakashi pointed out. "If I remember correctly she'll be fighting Naruto next round and God knows that boy is far too hyperactive to sit still for five minutes in a fight, let alone two hundred and forty."

"There is that, I suppose," the Kazekage agreed. He brightened. "Oh, and it will be my child against yours, Hokage-sama."

Minato raised his eyebrows. "Indeed? That should be an interesting match-up."

Having temporarily been in the Hokage seat himself, Kakashi realized that that was just Kage speech for 'eternal bragging rights.' That was not going to be a fun match either…

----

Sakura rushed down to the arena floor to the sounds of Ino berating Shikamaru.

"Seriously, what part of 'I must have vengeance' did you not understand?" she demanded.

"I'm sorry, Ino, but I thought you were talking about Sasuke. Or were Sasuke with your subject matter. Either way, I assumed Sasuke was somehow involved and quickly stopped caring," Shikamaru semi-apologized.

"But you beat her! You had her frozen and could have made her surrender!" Ino cried. "Why the hell didn't you?"

"I was out of chakra," Shikamaru explained. "As I explained when I surrendered. Or am I not the only one guilty of not listening on this team?"

" 'Out of chakra'?" Ino sputtered. "You had enough to trap her while you were explaining your convoluted plan and needlessly surrendering! If you had chakra for that you had chakra to make her forfeit or knock herself out or something!"

"Maybe," Shikamaru allowed. "But I wouldn't have any for the next fight."

"But if you won you'd stand a better chance of getting promoted," Ino reminded him.

"That's great, Ino, except I don't want to be here in the first place, don't want to fight a second round, definitely don't want to fight someone as troublesome as Naruto, and the only reason I could see for being promoted is not having to go through an exam like this again," Shikamaru countered.

"Besides," Temari spoke up. "Real Kunoichi fight their own battles. Finish growing up and then challenge me to a rematch or something if you're that desperate."

"I will!" Ino vowed. "I have a new goal in life!"

"You know," Temari said idly, "it's times like these that I understand why Kankuro hates kids so much…"

"Sorry I'm late," Sakura said as she finally made her way over to her opponent.

"Finally," Neji said, sounding extremely irritated. "You were in the bathroom for twenty-five minutes. What could possibly be taking so long?"

"Okay, two things. One, get used to it because people often spend a ridiculous amount of time in restrooms. Two, I'm a pubescent girl, why the hell would you ask me that?" Sakura demanded.

"Kid's got a point," Obito said. "You are really better off not asking. Anyway, let the hopefully more mobile fourth match between Hyuuga Neji and Haruno Sakura begin!"

"You are going to lose this match," Neji informed her matter-of-factly.

"You don't know that," Sakura argued. "We haven't even started fighting yet."

"And yet the outcome is predetermined," Neji insisted.

Sakura groaned. "Not more of this fate crap…"

"There is nothing wrong in accepting that some things are inevitable. For instance, you have pink hair and will never be a chakra powerhouse. I am a Hyuuga branch member and a prodigy. These are things about us that we cannot change. I have no problem fighting a girl, but facing someone as weak as you…well, it would simply be embarrassing for us both. Save yourself the pain and humiliation your friend Ino suffered and just quit now. God knows her loss has lead her to seek vengeance. Unlike Temari, I don't live three days away and would actually be greatly inconvenienced if you were to regularly start challenging me to 'honor matches' or whatever such nonsense that you think might make you feel better of yourself."

Sakura decided that this would be a lot less trying if he got it all out at the beginning instead of stopping every five seconds to deliver a speech about why he thought she sucked. She glanced to the upper left at the balcony where the other finalists were waiting. Sure, it looked like Naruto and Sasuke were there, but she knew they couldn't be back yet or Naruto would start giving a speech of his own. Since Neji still wasn't finished she allowed her eyes to wander to the lower right before scanning the crowd. Her parents still hadn't committed to either being at the exam or missing it and it would have been kind of nice to know. Maybe after the fight she could ask Neji to check for her if he was done being a fatalist?

"You can't fool my eyes," Neji said a little louder, perhaps able to see she wasn't listening. "Against my pressure just now you floated your eyes to the upper left. This is a sign that you are remembering your past experiences. Your painful past."

"Yes, you can tell which direction I'm looking. Truly the power of the Byakugan is great," Sakura said sarcastically. "And I was actually just looking for my friends. But tell me: what do you know about my past that would make it painful? My tragically large forehead? Because looking back, it really wasn't all that noticeable and I grew into it. Besides, even if I didn't I have better things to worry about and a forehead protector to boot."

In favor of staying on topic and continuing his psychological assault on the pink-haired girl, Neji went on as if he hadn't heard her. "And after that you looked to the lower right. That's a sign that you are imagining physical and mental pain...basically, you are thinking about yourself. And from all the experience until now you are imagining the results of this match. Imaging that...you'll lose!"

Sakura snorted. "Please. Like I need to imagine me losing. My teammates have already been doing quite a nice job of that for the past month."

"I believe in you," Kakashi called down.

"Not by choice, I'm sure," Sakura called back.

"Does it matter? It's more than you're getting from Naruto or Sasuke," Kakashi pointed out.

"See? Not even your own team believes in you," Neji drawled. "That's kind of pathetic."

"What's pathetic is how much my team sucks," Sakura countered. "And say fate does exist and is not just an easy justification for the way things turned out after the fact…how in the world do you know what my fate is? Are you claiming to be able to see the future now?"

"Hardly," Neji scoffed. "That's the kind of thing that Sharingan users do."

"I feel so discriminated against," Kakashi sighed.

Itachi shot him a strange look. "For what? You're not an Uchiha and you don't have a Sharingan."

"By proxy," Kakashi hurriedly explained, "for Obito and Sasuke who are either busy being professional or aren't here to get outraged."

"Obito is not liable to care," Itachi noted. "Though Sasuke might swear vengeance."

"Some fights I believe I will win but am not certain about. Sasuke, Naruto, and Gaara are all very powerful and don't necessarily have to let me within range for my Gentle Fist style to work. Lee, though a failure at most aspects of being a shinobi is a master at taijutsu and closing off his chakra wouldn't affect him as badly as it would most. Even Temari could conceivably use her fan to keep me out of striking range. You?" Neji said dismissively. "You're a pink-haired civilian who got through on the strength of her teammates powers and because Hinata-sama still has a long way to go before being anywhere near her full potential."

"I can't exactly help the hair, you know," Sakura huffed.

"I know," Neji nodded solemnly. "It is fate."

"Or genetics," Sakura countered. "God I feel like you're going to accuse me of being a witch next…"

"And I feel like this match is going nowhere. Somebody do something before I'm forced to take drastic measures," Obito threatened.

"Fine," Neji grumbled. "But after I beat you I'm going to haunt your hospital room until I finish explaining just how and why you'll never amount to anything."

Sakura shuddered. This just got serious.

Chapter Text

Neji came at her quickly from the start and Sakura had never been so grateful to have learned to predict and avoid an enemy's attack during her tenure as Tsunade's personal punching bag. Fortunately, Neji was almost impossibly arrogant and all he'd seen of her was her basic taijutsu-only fight with Hinata in which she hadn't even used her monstrous strength.

One clean hit from her ought to be enough to take down Neji but then if Neji managed to block up her chakra then she would be out of options due to her lack of a readily available second chakra source like Naruto had relied on. While she was fairly certain Neji could use all those upper-level Main House Hyuuga techniques he wasn't supposed to know already, she also knew he wouldn't waste them on someone he'd just referred to as a civilian. Of course, the odds of her landing a really good hit on him weren't very high so a couple of not-so-good ones might have to suffice.

Sakura jumped back a few feet, annoyed. In five minutes of exchanging blows, Neji had managed to seal up half of the chakra points in her left arm. Just lovely. He threw a kunai at her, which she lazily caught and tossed back. He really wasn't taking her seriously, was he? At least he'd shut up about fate, though.

"You see? We've barely started and already you've shown that you are no match for me," Neji said, proving she'd spoken too soon. Still, at least it wasn't as bad as when he'd whined to Naruto about how he could never understand having an ostracizing symbol. Ostracizing? Like anyone outside of the Hyuuga even cared about that stupid seal. Plus his attempt to kill the most progressive heiress the Hyuuga had likely ever had was also kind of counterproductive. It had kind of confused her at the time, but looking back she really didn't begrudge Naruto his maniacal laughter at that. "You've yet to even land a hit. Not that it would matter."

"We'll just see about that," Sakura growled, charging at him with her right fist pulled back.

Neji raised his right arm almost casually to block her strike. Sakura had to admit, the look on his face when her punch broke his arm was priceless and almost made up for his monologuing. It didn't nearly make up for his threat of further monologues post-match though. "What did you do?" he demanded.

"I broke your arm," she said innocently. "What did it feel like?"

Neji's eyes narrowed. Looks like she just pissed him off. Good.

----

"Don't you think we should be heading back soon?" Sasuke asked.

"Why should we?" Naruto asked, downing yet another bowl of ramen. Gaara had decided to head back shortly after Sakura, but Naruto hadn't finished his third helping of everything on the menu yet.

"Well, Sakura's match can't possibly take that long and I'm up after her," Sasuke replied.

"So? I still have my Sasuke-clone and my Naruto-clone in place so when the match is over, I'll let you know," Naruto promised.

"That's great, but I was already late to my prelim match and I don't want to be late again," Sasuke told him. "After all, that's what really killed me my first time through."

"Sasuke, there's a difference between being five or ten minutes late and not showing up for hours on end, forcing all of the matches to be rearranged and still almost being too late to compete," Naruto pointed out.

"But last time I was supposed to be the second match and this time I'm the fifth. Before Temari and Shikamaru and…who else made the finals anyway?" Sasuke wondered.

"Shino and Kankuro," Naruto answered. "But Puppet Boy forfeited so that didn't buy you any time."

"Shikamaru's match bought me every last minute, I'm sure," Sasuke agreed.

"And the fact that you only got to fight for five minutes or so and were showing increasing signs of instability can't have helped your cause either," Naruto reminded him.

"That seal was not my fault," Sasuke insisted.

"You still had it and you still were kind of publicizing the fact that you had issues, even if you didn't feel the need to go into them. " Naruto paused." Well, not until your monologue at the Valley of the End."

"Oh you cannot complain about that; you wanted to know!" Sasuke claimed.

"I really didn't," Naruto disagreed. "I just wanted to know why you were leaving."

"And I told you," Sasuke said, crossing his arms irritably.

"And you couldn't have done that without telling me your whole life's story?" Naruto demanded.

"Can anyone?" Sasuke challenged. "That's the philosophy you base your whole 'Therapy Jutsu' shtick on, isn't it?

"…Point. We'll head back when I'm done with this bowl."

----

If it weren't for the fact that Neji was fighting one-handed, his increased viciousness would probably mean it was over for Sakura. Then again, if it hadn't been for the fact that she'd pulverized his hand, he wouldn't be that pissed, now would he?

Tragically, Neji had managed to seal up several chakra points in her right arm, too, so lethal punches were out. That didn't mean that she was helpless as far as defensive taijutsu by any means and, in fact, kind of a blessing in disguise as she no longer had to worry about him landing blows on her arms since he'd done so several times already. If he managed to get past her defenses and attack her organs then she'd be in trouble, so her arms would be taking as many hits as she needed them to.

Even if he was taking her seriously now, most of his heavy-hitters required two hands so even if she couldn't use chakra through her hands she wasn't in too bad of a shape – there. A break in Neji's defense and she took it. Sakura aimed a chakra-infused kick to Neji's stomach and was pleased to hear several ribs cracking.

Neji stayed down for a moment then struggled to his feet. He seemed to be having difficulty breathing.

"Can you continue?" Obito asked.

Neji looked down speculatively for a moment before shaking his head. "It's no good. My lung's punctured," he said slowly. "I don't…how could you…?"

"In a straight-up match, I probably couldn't yet," Sakura admitted. "I have a long way to go to get up to where I feel I should be. Just the same, today was a perfect opportunity to have a straight-up match but you didn't take it. You underestimated me because you saw my pink hair and my lack of a ninja clan and assumed that I don't take this seriously. I do. If you want to get to know people, get to know me, and then make your judgments, feel free. To do so before and to insist that you know people's destiny…it's arrogant beyond belief and could very well be wrong. You should have won today. Think about why you didn't."

----

"I don't think I've ever been more shocked in my life," Kakashi said. "Well, there was that one time I found that scroll and talked my team into going back in…no, this is somehow still more shocking."

"So this turn of events is surprising?" the Kazekage inquired.

"Less than half a year ago she was a fangirl who graduated on the strength of her written exam," Kakashi explained.

"I see," the Kazekage said. "That's quite a turnaround. You must be a very gifted teacher."

"It sure seems that way, doesn't it?" Kakashi asked cheerfully.

"Why would it only seem that way?" Itachi asked.

"I didn't say it only seemed that way," Kakashi lied.

"Then why say it 'seemed' that way instead of 'it's true'?" Itachi pressed.

"Because I was trying to be modest?" Kakashi suggested. "I don't know; stop nitpicking!"

"Training under Tsunade for the past month definitely helped," Minato noted. "She's always been demanding but a good teacher."

"Oh?" the Kazekage asked. "That girl was working with Tsunade? I thought I recognized those attacks. Channeling chakra through her punches and kicks? It must have been a race against time as that boy could seal up her chakra."

"Indeed, Sakura had a definite point about that match, though," Minato agreed. "Neji was controlling most of the match and Sakura only got two hits in but she made them count. Taking into account how easily he took out Kankuro I'd have to say that the match would very well have gone in Neji's favor had he taken her seriously. While using your best moves from the start isn't always wise, goading her like that…he obviously has some unresolved issues to work out."

"There is a certain appeal to stopping in the middle of a fight to taunt your opponents on all their failings and your own genius," the Kazekage mused aloud. "But just the same, it won't due to underestimate them and there is a time and place for everything and the middle of the Chuunin Exam is certainly not it."

"I just love it how none of the rules we teach our genin ever apply once they grow up and start fending for themselves," Kakashi sighed.

"Once they get to a certain level, they more or less know how to keep themselves alive and finish their missions so they deserve a little leeway," Minato declared. "Whereas if we didn't have these rules in place all of the genin would get themselves killed soon after graduation and that would be a disaster."

"I know," the Kazekage concurred. "Think of all the paperwork…"

"And the poor, innocent dead children, right?" Minato prompted.

The Kazekage looked startled. "What? O h, right. Dead children means you need replacements and training them can be very time-consuming."

"And people say Konoha's the strange one," Minato said, shaking his head in bemusement.

"Given how little the other nations seems to care about their shinobi, we kind of are," Kakashi pointed out. "It's not all bad, though, as we can pretty much do whatever we feel like and as long as we don't proudly announce it, we still easily retain our title of the 'nice' one."

"It's a good thing you have increased your security, Hokage-sama," Itachi told him.

"Why's that?" Minato asked.

"Because aside from Kakashi, the only one who bet on Sakura was Tsunade-hime," Itachi replied.

Minato and Kakashi exchanged horrified looks and even the Kazekage looked a bit freaked out.

----

"I'm telling you, we're not late," Naruto insisted as he finally made his way towards the arena. "Otherwise at the very least my Sasuke-clone would have dispersed and let me know."

"Maybe something happened?" Sasuke suggested. "Because I really don't see Sakura being able to hold Neji off for this long."

"Maybe he started monologuing again," Naruto offered.

Sasuke stared at him. "Monologuing? Are you serious?"

Naruto nodded. "He used to be pretty bad with those. He nearly gave Hinata a nervous breakdown during the prelims and then made sure to give me his life's story during the Finals right before insisting I could never understand what it's like to be an outcast."

Sasuke snorted. "You? An outcast? Perish the thought."

"And in this timeline, he'd be right," Naruto said. "Still, it is rather strange he was one of maybe five people who didn't know who I was before meeting me. Then again, I suppose people my age often missed the adults going around complaining about me every time anything ever went wrong in their lives…"

"No, they just referred to you as the 'fox brat' and no one who didn't know about the Kyuubi had any idea who they were talking about," Sasuke clarified.

"Oh," Naruto blinked. "That was one way to get around that 'don't talk about the Kyuubi' edict, I suppose. But seriously, Neji's monologuing was practically infamous after the exams. You sure you don't remember?"

"Naruto," Sasuke said patiently. "After my prelim fight I went through a sealing ritual and was unconscious and I didn't show up at the Finals until my fight. After the invasion I was busy dealing with the aftermath and our lack of a Hokage and then I was comatose until I left. By the time I got back, Neji was clearly over monologuing so how could I possibly be expected to know this?"

"It's your fault for leaving in the first place," Naruto sniffed.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "That may have been the least convincing reason for me to stay I've ever heard."

Naruto looked sheepish. "Yeah, well…trust me, the fight could very well not have even started yet the way Neji can carry on."

They were walking past the stands and towards the balcony where they were supposed to be when they were stopped by a woman with pink hair.

"Pardon me," she said. "But you're Sakura's teammates, right? Uchiha Sasuke and Namikaze Naruto?"

"That's us," Sasuke confirmed. "Are you a relative of hers?"

"I am her mother, Haruno Momoko and this is my husband, Keisuke," Momoko introduced, gesturing to a man standing to her left.

"We've heard a lot about you," Keisuke told them.

"Nothing illegal, I hope," Naruto said, half-serious.

"No," Momoko laughed, clearly thinking he was joking. "And all good aside from something about a ramen obsession and an obsessive vengeance streak."

"Hey, I don't even believe in vengeance!" Naruto objected.

"And I don't even really like ramen," Sasuke added.

Momoko shrugged. "Well, I don't know what to tell you."

"We wanted to thank you for helping Sakura out these past few months," Keisuke told them. "We've never had a ninja in the family and you are both from shinobi clans. Sakura's wanted to be a ninja ever since she met the little Yamanaka girl, Ino, but we really didn't know what that involved and we were worried that she would be in over her head and would get hurt. Now, though…now she's apparently facing off against prodigies and training under legendary medics."

"For whatever part you have played in helping our daughter get to this point, we thank you," Momoko said sincerely.

"Don't…don't worry about it," Naruto said a little awkwardly. 'Whatever part they played'? Making her feel useless, abandoning her for Oto and then the Akatsuki, or leaving on a three-year training trip…somehow, he doubted that was what Sakura's parents expected their roles to be.

"We were glad to help a talented girl like Sakura reach her potential," Sasuke said diplomatically. "I'm up next, though, so-"

"Oh, of course," Momoko said. "Tell our daughter congratulations for making it this far and we're proud of her, would you?"

"I guess the match is over then," Naruto mused. "It's a shame she lost before we could see her fight but…oh." Naruto blinked as his clones dispelled and he absorbed the memories of the fight. "Sasuke, Sakura actually-"

"Not now," Sasuke said impatiently. "I've got to get up there so I can get called down for my fight."

"About time you guys showed up," Sakura said once they reached the balcony. "Did you see any of my fight at all?"

"It's not my fault that Naruto wouldn't stop eating or that you couldn't hold Neji off long enough for us to get here," Sasuke insisted. "Or, I suppose, start him monologuing. Naruto was sure that would buy enough time."

"Well, it was taking awhile," Sakura admitted. "But then Obito threatened to take drastic measures if we didn't just hurry up and fight."

"Your parents said congrats and that they're proud of you," Naruto told her. "Although I don't get why you told her I was obsessed with vengeance and Sasuke was obsessed with ramen."

"Oh, so my parents decided to show up after all?" Sakura asked, delighted. "Excellent! But…I never said that."

"Your parents told us you did," Sasuke countered.

"I said Naruto was the ramen freak and Sasuke had revenge issues," Sakura clarified.

"Oh," Naruto said. "That would make more sense, then."

"I can see how they'd be proud of you for making it to the finals, but as to why they'd congratulate you for losing…maybe you did well enough you'll get promoted anyway?" Sasuke guessed. "You'd better have because if you're the reason I have to discover the 'Springtime of Youth' then I swear…"

"I didn't lose," Sakura told him.

Sasuke blinked. "What do you mean you 'didn't lose'?"

"I mean I won," Sakura replied. "Is that really so hard to believe?"

Sasuke shook his head sadly. "Poor Sakura…she must have been so utterly crushed she's become delusional…"

"Oh, that is so it. Someone, hand me something sharp," Sakura ordered.

"I'm kind of disturbed that this team's turning out to be more homicidal than ours," Temari confessed. "And that they're apparently giving Gaara friendship lessons…"

Chapter Text

Fortunately for Sasuke and Sakura's MSR – which would surely suffer from attacking a teammate seemingly out of the blue – his match was up next and he quickly made his way down to the arena.

"I've been waiting for this match," Kiba announced. "Ever since-"

"Yeah, I don't care," Sasuke cut him off. "I just want to fight Naruto. And Gaara will probably be a fun opponent as well. But mostly Naruto."

"Oh, so you have faith that he'll win his next match," Sakura called down irritably.

Sasuke nodded. "Of course. Nothing against Temari or anything, but Naruto is my Epic Rival. I have to have faith in him because if he sucks that reflects poorly on me."

"That's why I didn't want Konohamaru to declare me his Epic Rival," Naruto agreed. "Well…that and he had a tendency to very noticeably stalk me and is only eight. It also looks bad if your Epic Rival is in their first year at the Academy. Although I did kind of suck when our Epic Rivalry started."

Sasuke shrugged. "What can I say? I looked underneath the underneath."

"I have seriously got to look into getting that phrase trademarked," Kakashi decided.

"You guys are so stupid," Sakura complained.

"Hey, it's not like you don't have an Epic Rivalry going on with Ino," Naruto pointed out.

"I think she's more focused on Temari right now, to be honest," Sakura replied.

"Well, I'll be leaving soon enough and you're welcome to her," Temari said. "Seriously, I really don't need her obsessing over me."

"It's not like our rivalry is even the same since it started off a bit more boy-focused than yours did," Sakura added.

"I should think so," Sasuke concurred. "Seeing as how neither Naruto nor I like boys."

At that point, Kiba burst out laughing.

"Did what I said amuse you?" Sasuke asked coldly.

"Wow, that just…don't mind me, the absurdity of what you just said was too much for me," Kiba informed him after his laughter had subsided to the point where he could speak again.

"You're going out of your way to provoke me," Sasuke noted. "Why?"

"Because it amuses me," Kiba answered. "Plus it's almost as easy to do as provoking Naruto but twice as amusing and good practice for when we're related someday."

"That day will never happen," Sasuke insisted.

"Keep telling yourself that, Sasuke," Kiba said patronizingly. "Because if I understand the situation correctly then-"

"Can you just start the match already?" Sasuke interrupted, turning to Obito.

"But additions to our family is really something that I need to know," Obito protested.

"But now is not the time!" Sasuke exclaimed.

Obito sighed. "Fine, begin."

"After what happened with Shino and his poor bugs, normally I would have some reservations about using Akamaru, but since I have your word you won't do something lame like threaten to kill him if I don't surrender, I'm going to go right ahead with my original plan. Let's go, Akamaru!" Kiba ordered.

"I don't want your 'surrender'," Sasuke told him, activating his Sharingan. "I want to knock you unconscious."

As Kiba and Akamaru ran towards Sasuke, Kiba took out a smoke bomb and tossed it ahead of him. "Your Sharingan won't do you much good if you can't see!" he gloated.

" 'Some' good is better than 'no' good," Sasuke replied. He saw Akamaru coming literally a split second before the dog would have made contact and reached up to grab him. Stepping out of the smoke, Sasuke held up his prize. "That was careless of you, Kiba."

"What are you going to do with him?" Kiba demanded. "Kill him? You swore you wouldn't!"

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "For God's sake, I'm a ninja and not the Naruto kind. Why on earth would you take me at my word? But as it happens, I don't intend to kill him."

"Then what are you going to do?" Kiba pressed, a tiny bit of fear leaking into his voice.

"Mangekyou Sharingan," Sasuke said by way of explanation. He turned the puppy around until they had eye contact. "Tsukuyomi."

Immediately, Akamaru went limp in Sasuke's arms.

"Akamaru!" Kiba cried out. "What did you do to him?"

"You know, Sasuke," Sakura called down. "Using the Tsukuyomi might not be actually killing him, but torturing puppies really isn't all that better in the eyes of the fangirls."

"Like I care," Sasuke shot back.

"Or the MSR," Naruto piped up.

"I didn't torture him," Sasuke insisted.

"So you're saying you didn't trap him in an illusionary world of your own creation for what seemed like three days to him?" Naruto asked innocently.

"Oh no, I did," Sasuke confirmed. "I just sent him to a world with plenty of cats it can run around with." Demon cat clones of Tora, perhaps, that would probably be chasing him instead of vice versa, but nobody really had to know that, now did they? "Here, catch," he said, tossing Akamaru's limp form at his partner.

"Don't you think you're kind of over-using that?" Sakura asked. "I mean, using it on Orochimaru was one thing. And I could even sort of understand when you used it on that cat, but Akamaru, too?"

"If I had to deal with the circumstances involved in obtaining it, then I see no reason not to use it every chance I get," Sasuke disagreed.

"And you do use it every chance you get," Naruto agreed.

"If he has any psychological scarring from this and needs therapy, I'm totally sending the bill to you," Kiba threatened, catching the flying puppy. "Is there anywhere I can put him until the end of the match?"

"Just put him off to the side and hope that area of the wall doesn't suffer any damage in the course of the match," Obito advised.

Sasuke blinked in confusion. "There's dog therapy?"

"Of course," Kiba sounded surprised that he didn't already know this. "Especially ninken since they have to deal with the same kind of traumatizing experiences that ninja do."

"We don't even have therapists for people but we have them for pets?" Sasuke couldn't believe it.

"Of course we have people therapists," Kiba exclaimed. "Of course, they're civilians so not many ninja go because a lot of information is classified, the therapist wouldn't understand, and they just don't want to traumatize a civilian with the reason they need therapy."

"Why did no one see fit to mention this to me a few years ago when I really could have used it?" Sasuke demanded.

"Clan policy was 'Uchiha are above such plebian things as 'therapy''," Obito offered.

"Don't worry, Sasuke, I'm as pissed as you are that nobody mentioned that," Naruto assured him. "Because seriously…those are four years of my life that I can't get back. Well, not through any sane method, at least."

----

"Like he's really one to judge 'sanity'," Kakashi muttered. "Or me for that matter. Or anyone really who doesn't suck at being a ninja."

"I'm perfectly sane!" Minato protested.

"You had a demon sealed in your son," the Kazekage reminded him. "And while I did the exact same thing and think it is a wonderful if unstable source of great power, I also fully acknowledge that is not sane behavior."

"I had no choice!" Minato insisted. "The village was under attack."

"Konoha always does have their excuses," the Kazekage said pleasantly.

"You know, I really did not expect Sasuke to be using such a powerful genjutsu on a puppy in a Chuunin Exam match," Itachi mused. "I don't think I've ever used it for something that frivolous."

"Yes, but Sasuke has issues," Kakashi pointed out. "And technically twelve."

"That reminds me: do you think Sasuke's right and we should have taken him to therapy?" Itachi wondered. "Granted it went against our long-standing policy but since everyone was dead, that really didn't necessarily mean anything."

Kakashi thought about it. "Well, it might have helped but he never would have agreed. After all, since he knows about the possibility now there is nothing stopping him from going to seek it after the Exam but I'll bet you anything that he won't."

"Now he's a ninja," Itachi pointed out. "And Kiba does have a point about ninja having a difficult time with therapists."

"Only when it's about ninja matters and losing family members really doesn't have to be a ninja matter," Kakashi told him.

"Under the circumstances, it really was," Itachi countered.

"If nothing else he could probably benefit from some nice civilian-friendly therapy on dealing with changes in one's family as he really seemed to take the idea of being even indirectly related to Kiba poorly," Kakashi suggested.

"Do you think he's really that upset about the prospect?" Itachi asked, concerned. "Hana and I are a little on the young side to be getting married, but we have been dating for the past few years so that is a very real possibility. I wouldn't want to do anything to seriously upset Sasuke, though."

"Sasuke doesn't like to be teased and Kiba seems to take great pleasure in doing just that. Don't worry, though, he'll be fine if you do," Kakashi assured him. "Although you may want to make sure you don't leave them in a room alone together or there will probably be blood."

"It is a pain to get out of furniture," Itachi noted. "Not to mention the flooring…"

----

"I swear to you, Sasuke, I will get vengeance for Akamaru's coma!" Kiba declared dramatically.

"He's not in a coma; just have Tsunade look at him and he'll be fine," Sasuke said dismissively. "But you know…I don't think I've ever had someone swear vengeance on me before."

"What about those people from Kumo?" Sakura asked.

Sasuke blinked. "What people from Kumo?"

"What people from –" Naruto broke off. "Honestly, Sasuke, how can you not know who they were? They were pissed that they thought you kidnapped their master and I had to let them beat me up!"

"Well, I wasn't there at the time, obviously, but I strongly suspect that just happened because you were being a noble idiot," Sasuke hypothesized.

"It's true, he was," Sakura agreed. "And I would also like to just clear up for everyone that Sasuke did not, in fact, kidnap anyone and it was all just a misunderstanding."

"You know, when my team goes on missions, we might have to deal with an unexpected attack or two, but at least it's pretty straightforward. Have you guys ever had a straightforward mission?" Kiba asked, popping a pill into his mouth.

Sasuke didn't even have to think about it. "No, never."

"I think that might be saying something about you people, right there," Kiba suggested. "Shikyaku no Jutsu!" The boy dropped to all fours and a feral look came to his face as his eyes narrowed and he started snarling.

"Is he taking stimulants?" Sasuke demanded.

Obito shook his head. "No, it's a soldier pill. They tend to have an interesting effect on Inuzuka."

"You don't say," Sasuke said dryly. He quickly moved back a few feet as Kiba jumped at the wall and then lunged at him. Good thing, too, as when Kiba landed the floor shook and debris went flying. Kiba didn't even pause as he immediately went after him again. As Sasuke continued to dodge, he tried to remember if he'd ever really seen Kiba fight before. He had faced that Oto girl in the preliminaries, but he had Akamaru with him and hadn't resorted to a soldier pill against her, so that really wouldn't give him a very good idea what to expect.

"Damn, this isn't working," Kiba complained. "Tsūga!" With that, Kiba began spinning so fast he resembled a tornado and headed straight for Sasuke.

Sasuke was able to dodge most of them, but one blow still made it through. "You hit hard," he complimented.

"You think?" Kiba grinned.

"Indeed," Sasuke confirmed. "Too bad that you're, what, one for twenty?"

Kiba narrowed his eyes. "Say that again, I dare you."

"I think you'll find that I don't need to as you are already well aware of your difficulty in hitting me," Sasuke said calmly.

Kiba leapt in the air to try his Tsūga again but Sasuke smirked and said, "And now it's my turn. Kage Buyō!" With that, he launched Kiba even higher into the air with a swift upper kick. Sasuke then jumped up above Kiba and began raining blows down upon him. "Shishi Rendan!" he said as he finished by throwing Kiba to the ground and kicking him in the chest.

"And…he's out," Obito announced, "so Sasuke wins. Seriously, all these head injuries…should we be concerned about all the brain damage the next generation of ninjas are incurring?"

Sasuke shrugged. "I wouldn't. If it's not brain damage, it's massive emotional trauma. None of us are well adjusted. Except possibly Tenten, but I don't know nearly enough about her to be sure."

"And that concludes the first round of the Chuunin Exam Finals," Obito announced to the crowd at large. "There will be a fifteen minute intermission before the next round of fights start. Just to remind everyone, Gaara has a bye this round, Naruto is fighting Temari, and Sakura is fighting Sasuke. Hurry up and place your bets because unless Naruto decides to match his teammates and show up late, we will be starting on time."

Once Sasuke made his way back to the balcolny, he, Naruto, and Sakrua immediately moved to the far end so as not to have to censor their conversation.

"This is so weird…" Naruto murmured. "We're actually going on to the second round. I'm concerned. Do you think anything has changed?"

Sakura snorted. "EVERYTHING has changed. As for what you're asking…I don't know. Try not to completely exhaust yourself or end up unconscious just in case, though."

"I make no promises when I get to Naruto," Sasuke said. "We don't get to fight nearly enough."

"You guys fight every day!" Sakura objected.

"That's sparring, Sakura," Naruto corrected her. "There's a difference."

"Who the hell uses A-class jutsu during a spar?" Sakura demanded.

"We do, obviously," Sasuke replied, somewhat condescendingly.

"I still have that kunai Kiba gave me, you know," Sakura warned him.

"All the awesome people use dangerous and potentially lethal jutsu in friendly spars," Naruto explained. "But hey, at least we check to see if anyone else is around before we start. Well, usually. Sometimes. When we remember."

"I think we checked once," Sasuke remarked.

"And no one was there," Naruto announced.

"You guys are going to end up killing someone someday," Sakura said, shaking her head ruefully.

"Sakura? Hate to break it to you but we're ninja. Killing people is what we do," Naruto pointed out. "Well…when we're not saving them from themselves."

"But you're not supposed to be killing random people who happen to walk by you two sparring!" Sakura protested.

"I have two really tough matches ahead of me," Sasuke mused. "And I'm telling you now, Naruto: if you lose to Temari I'm firing you as my rival and hiring her instead. The fact she's three days away is a bit of a problem, but me living in Oto or just outright travelling never hurt our rivalry so that shouldn't be a problem. Although I'd have to do something about Ino as I refuse to share a rival with her."

"How can you fire me as your rival?" Naruto demanded. "You're not exactly paying me!"

"I buy you ramen," Sasuke pointed out. "And given how much you eat I think that's more than generous, especially as you profit from our rivalry as well."

"Point," Naruto conceded.

"Wait…" Sakura said slowly. "What do you MEAN you only have two difficult matches coming up? You're the only one without a bye and you're facing me, Gaara, and then Naruto should you win your first two."

"Yeah, but even though Gaara and Naruto are worthy adversaries…I'm also fighting you, Sakura," Sasuke pointed out reasonably. Or so he thought, anyway.

"What part of 'I just kicked Neji's ass' makes you think I'll be that easy to take down?" Sakura demanded.

"I wasn't actually there for that fight," Sasuke reminded her. "And unlike Naruto, I didn't leave a Kage Bunshin behind to give me the memories of the fight. For all I know, Neji got all pissy that he couldn't finish those monologues he's apparently so fond of and quit."

"Your death will be slow and painful," Sakura promised.

"Probably," Sasuke agreed. "But God knows it won't be at your hand."

Sensing Sakura's darkening mood, Naruto wisely grabbed Sakura's hand and started dragging her off towards the medical area. "Come on, let's go visit Neji. I can evaluate how well your Therapy Jutsu worked and after what he said about stalking your hospital room, seeing you will probably give him a panic attack…"

Chapter Text

"Yo," Kakashi greeted as he appeared beside Sasuke in a whirl of leaves.

"Couldn't you just walk here like a normal person?" Sasuke demanded. "Now there are leaves everywhere."

"If they bother you that much just ask Temari to blow them away for you," Kakashi said dismissively. "And to answer your question: no, I can't."

Sasuke waited for some elaboration but it seemed like Kakashi wasn't willing to offer any. "No you can't because…?" he prompted.

"Because I'm not a normal person," Kakashi replied promptly.

"I hear that," Sasuke muttered.

"And because walking would have wasted valuable talking to my minions time or reading Ichi Ichi time," Kakashi added. "Speaking of, where are Sakura and Naruto?"

"They went to go visit Neji in the medical area," Sasuke answered. "Or at least that's what they said they were doing. Who even knows if that's where they really are."

"So, haunting his bedside, huh?" Kakashi mused, rubbing his chin. "I have taught them well."

"…Sure," Sasuke said. "And you have no idea just how surreal it is to hear people genuinely believe that."

"Well when the students are amazing, the teacher looks incredible by default," Kakashi explained.

"Yeah, except you're the kind of teacher who thought we were good to go against people like Lee, Neji, Temari, and GAARA after having only ever taught us one thing," Sasuke pointed out.

"I had complete faith in you," Kakashi insisted.

"The only skills we had that we didn't have when we graduated – well, except for Naruto having the ability to use Chakra properly which he really should have had when he graduated – was the ability to climb trees. How did that make you think 'oh, they're ready to be Chuunins'?" Sasuke wondered.

"The second stage did take place in a forest," Kakashi noted.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: there is a reason I left," Sasuke said, shaking his head in annoyance.

"I know," Kakashi agreed pleasantly. " I just thought that reason was Naruto's status as 'competent' was giving you an inferiority complex."

"Okay, I feel sufficiently talked to, why don't you go bother Naruto and Sakura now?" Sasuke suggested.

"I couldn't possibly do that!" Kakashi sounded shocked at the very idea. "They're visiting a friend in his time of need and to interrupt would just be rude!" He paused. "Not to mention Gai will probably be there. But tell me: why didn't you go with them?"

"Because I don't really care about Neji's minor probably-healed-by-Tsunade-by-now injuries," Sasuke replied.

"I figured that," Kakashi said, rolling his eyes. "But why didn't Naruto and Sakura drag you along?"

Sasuke shrugged. "Probably because Naruto was too busy dragging Sakura."

"SAKURA didn't want to go?" Kakashi asked, surprised. "That doesn't sound like her. Besides, she'll want to tell Tsunade that she won. Against all odds."

"Apparently Sakura's mad at me," Sasuke revealed. "And Naruto wanted to give her a chance to cool down or something like that."

"Why in the world is Sakura mad at you?" Kakashi questioned. "I mean, it's not like you're still on her about being useless, right?"

Sasuke said nothing.

"…Seriously?" Kakashi asked. "You know she beat Neji."

"Hearsay," Sasuke claimed. "All I heard was that she's my next opponent and Neji got medical attention."

"You KNOW she's not," Kakashi pointed out. "So why are you saying otherwise?"

"I may know that," Sasuke allowed, "but fighting people when they're all worked up tends to make the fight more interesting. Besides, something tells me that once I actually do see her in action I'll have to drop the pretending to think she sucks thing and so I'm trying to milk it for all its worth while I can."

Kakashi snorted. "That you did. And then you went out, fed it a soldier pill, and started the process all over again."

Sasuke smirked. "Details, details…"

----

"You know, I appreciate your attempts to keep the peace until the match but I don't think it will do much good," Sakura told Naruto as they made their way towards Tsunade's domain.

"And why's that? An hour from now you'll either be fighting or your match will be over," Naruto predicted.

"True, but with Kakashi up in the Hokage box Sasuke and I will be alone together while you're fighting Temari," Sakura informed him.

"You won't be alone," Naruto assured her. "I don't think Shikamaru is planning on leaving seeing as how he appeared to be taking a nap when we left, Shino should still be there, Kiba might be there if he feels Akamaru is up to facing Sasuke, and Gaara will definitely be there as he's still in the Exam."

"As you said, Shikamaru is asleep but even if he weren't, would he bother to try and step in and break us up if he wasn't already touching our shadows?" Sakura shot back. "Or would Shino or Gaara do anything, period? Kiba might, but then he'd be more likely to break up our fight but provoking Sasuke into attacking him than anything else."

"You two are big kids now and one of these days you're going to have to learn how to deal with people who go out of their way to piss you off," Naruto mock-lectured as he opened the door to the medical area and stepped inside.

"I do know how to deal with them," Sakura replied, the very essence of wide-eyed innocence. "It's accomplishing such a thing non-violently that's giving me pause."

"Being drunk helps," Tsunade suggested, looking up from Akamaru. Kiba was watching anxiously a few feet back.

"I'm a bit young for that, though, aren't I?" Sakura asked, a little nervously. The last thing she wanted was to be on her mentor's list of potential drinking buddies.

"Konoha's policy is to allow anyone who is legally an adult – which you became once you made genin – to have full access to alcohol," Tsunade explained. "Civilians might have to show ID, but for shinobi just sporting a headband is enough."

"Drinking laws are in place for a reason and I really don't feel that I'm physically ready for-" Sakura began to protest.

"Oh, get over it. Ero-Sennin and Gamabunta made me get drunk when I was signing with them and nothing happened to me," Naruto announced.

"And you cleared it from your system in a matter of hours!" Sakura objected. "You're a Jinchuriki and have insane healing abilities; drinking doesn't work like that for me."

"Well, you could always drink less," Naruto suggested. "Just don't come to me for sympathy when you're hung-over because apparently I'm immune."

"Some people have all the luck," Tsunade muttered. "Although my method of drinking until the hangover goes away is surprisingly effective."

"Besides, remember all the problems Kakashi had to deal with and why he, Sasuke, definitely you, and I aren't supposed to drink?" Sakura hinted.

"Oh, right," Naruto nodded once realization had dawned. "You'd better stick to drinking with Shizune or Ero-Sennin, Baa-chan, because Sakura's a total lightweight and would probably pass out after the first drink or die of alcohol poisoning or something like that."

"What have I told you about calling me 'Baa-chan'?" Tsunade demanded.

Naruto shrugged. "I have no idea but I'm sure you're about to tell me. Not that I know why you even bother considering that I'm not liable to pay any more attention than the last fifty million times you told me…whatever it is that you said about it."

"Nice save," Sakura approved.

"Don't call me 'Baa-chan'!" Tsunade shouted.

"Then don't be old!" Naruto hollered back.

Whatever Tsunade was going to say next was preempted by Kiba's happy cry of, "Akamaru! You're okay!"

"I told you he would be," Tsunade reminded him.

"I know and I didn't doubt you I just…I was so worried!" Kiba gently picked Akamaru up and inspected him. Akamaru's eyes were wide and it looked terrified. "What's wrong with him? Sasuke said he just sent him off to chase cats. If I found out he lied to me…"

"He probably didn't," Sakura informed him. "But since most of Sasuke's experiences with cats was Tora, well…"

"Right," Kiba nodded. "I'm going to kill him."

"Okay, so I'm going to be moving Kiba out of the 'will stop fight by focusing attention on self' category and into the 'will join in' category," Naruto decided. "I wonder if I could convince Gaara to play peacemaker?"

"That would be one of the most ironic things I have ever seen," Sakura remarked.

"Although the two of you trying to kill a friend of yours might set a bad example," Naruto continued.

"We already addressed that possibility earlier today, remember?" Sakura reminded him. "We made sure to stress that following our example as far as that went wasn't really the way to go."

"What's a team without a little attempted homicide?" Tsunade interjected. "God knows it happened often enough on my team."

"Didn't your team have Orochimaru of all people?" Kiba asked, a little put-off at the thought of either trying to kill Hinata or Shino or them trying to kill him or each other.

"Yes, why?" Tsunade asked.

"And didn't it also have Jiraiya on it?" Kiba pressed.

"I don't see your point," Tsunade replied.

"If you can't I doubt my explaining it will do any good," Kiba decided.

"By the way, Tsunade-sama? I beat Neji," Sakura said proudly. "I had to take advantage of the fact he refused to take me seriously, but I did it."

"In the real world, people will often refuse to take you seriously, especially with your pink hair," Tsunade told her. "Honestly, there's just something about a shinobi with pink hair that makes it difficult to be taken seriously…exploiting that is an excellent strategy. After all – wait," the slug sannin cut herself off. "Are you saying that I just won a bet?"

The three genin froze.

"Y-you bet on me, Tsunade-sama?" Sakura asked once she found her voice.

Tsunade looked surprised at the question. "Of course I did; what kind of teacher would I be if I didn't have faith in my own student?"

"You know what? I think Akamaru's fine now so I'm going to go check in with my teammates. Thanks for waking him up," Kiba said hurriedly as he ran for the door. "Bye!"

"Coward," Naruto muttered.

"I swear to God, if there's an invasion because of this…" Tsunade shook her head. "But never mind that, I'm glad that my faith in you was not misplaced."

"Me too," Sakura managed to say, secretly wondering if it really would have been that bad to let Neji beat her and leave Naruto to deal with his issues.

"So, where did you say Neji was?" Naruto asked, eager to escape the situation as well.

"Right back there," Tsunade pointed towards his bed. "Be careful what you say; he's awake but he seems to be suffering from some sort of existential crisis."

"That's probably just a side-effect of Sakura's Therapy Jutsu," Naruto declared.

Tsunade peered curiously at her student. "You can do Therapy Jutsu? Since when?"

Sakura shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, you know me. Tragically large forehead and whatnot."

"If you say so," Tsunade said dubiously.

Quickly, the pair made their way over to Neji.

As Naruto had predicted, the minute Neji saw them – or, more accurately, her – he immediately stiffened and his eyes widened in alarm. Clearly he wasn't feeling up to listening to Sakura tell him all the reasons he should have won but didn't because he failed as a person.

"Oh, relax, Neji," Naruto urged. "We save causing mental breakdowns for the people we don't like."

"And you both like me?" Neji asked.

"Have you ever tried to kill Hinata?" Naruto returned.

Neji eyed him strangely. "Of course not."

"Then we have no problem with you," Naruto assured him cheerfully.

"I have a slight problem with all the monologuing," Sakura confessed. "I'm sure I'll get over it soon."

"I still can't believe I lost," Neji said, shaking his head in bemusement. "I should have won."

Sakura shrugged. "What can I say? Your overconfidence is your weakness. Well, that and your tendency to monologue. If you absolutely must, at least wait until you've beaten the opponent."

"That would be bad sportsmanship," Naruto objected.

"As much as I hate to say it, I think Sasuke might have had a point when he was talking about the 'Naruto' kind of ninja," Sakura said incredulously. "We're really not required to be sportsmanlike."

"But it's just an Exam," Naruto countered.

Sakura laughed. "JUST an Exam? People have died, you know."

"So what you're saying is that I should stop judging people prematurely because they may surprise me or even end up beating me and I'll be much happier if I stop trying to rely on fate instead of personal responsibility?" Neji cut in.

Sakura and Naruto exchanged a look.

"Sure, let's go with that," Naruto said finally.

"Feel better soon," Sakura told him. "We've really got to get back."

On their way out, they spotted Tsunade filling out a betting card.

"Not again…" Naruto groaned. "Isn't it bad enough you won once? Do you really want to risk such an event happening twice in one day?"

"No, I don't," Tsunade admitted. "Which is why I'm betting that the Exam will end with an invasion in the middle of one of the matches."

----

"Welcome to the second round of the Chuunin Exam finals," Obito announced. "The first match is a bye so would Gaara get down here, please?"

"Is he serious?" Gaara asked.

Sasuke shrugged."Who knows? You should probably just go."

Gaara nodded and jumped off the balcony.

"Okay, so let the first match commence," Obito said. He waited for a moment. "I see only one competitor able to continue so Gaara is the winner. Congratulations on making it to the semi-finals, Gaara. How do you feel?"

"Confused and slightly irritated," Gaara responded truthfully.

Obito blinked. "Strange. Most people are more excited. Ah well, to each his own. The second match is between Naruto and Temari. Would you two please get down here?"

"Well, I'm off," Naruto said. "Sasuke, try not to make anyone want to kill you while I'm gone, okay?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Sasuke claimed.

Naruto turned to the supposedly more rational member of his team. "Sakura, save it for the fight. It will come soon enough."

Heading towards the stairs, he saw two Kusa shinobi had cornered Temari.

"These low level tournaments like the Chuunin Exam are great for betting. Many of the ministers are here for that," one of them said conversationally.

The other smirked. "And so, this fight...could you lose it?"

"I suppose anything is possible," Temari said politely.

"I'm glad we understand each oth-" the first one started to say.

"That said, I'm not going to throw the fight and who the hell tries to convince someone to do so without offering up any incentive?" Temari demanded.

"Listen, girl, we're not giving you a choice here," the second growled, reaching for his pack.

"I get that you want whoever you're working for to win his bet but do you honestly think that the Kazekage's daughter managing to get injured on her way down the stairs is going to go over very well?" Naruto drawled. "And yes, I know that since this is Konoha the Hokage has the final say on what your punishment would be but since whoever you work for could have easily bet the other way and you decided to go after me…well, you probably wouldn't like the consequences. All that is inconsequential, though, because if you don't back off then Temari WILL make you."

The Kusa shinobi just glared at him before turning and leaving.

"I could have handled that myself, you know," Temari informed him, annoyed.

"You did handle that," Naruto replied. "I just pointed that out. And besides," he grinned, "they were blocking the stairs."

Chapter Text

"I'm just going to warn you now," Temari said conversationally. "If you give me a match that even vaguely resembles my previous one we are going to have problems."

"I wasn't actually here for your previous match so perhaps you could tell me what happened?" Naruto suggested.

"I'd rather not," Temari said shortly. "But suffice to say, if you drag this on for hours or surrender right when it's obvious you're seconds away from winning then so help me…"

"Don't worry; I don't have the patience for anything like that," Naruto assured her. "I didn't even have the patience to watch Shikamaru's match."

"And the no ridiculous surrendering?" Temari prompted.

"Weren't you paying attention during that last match?" Naruto asked. "I have a match with my epic rival coming up!"

Temari rolled her eyes. "That's assuming he doesn't lose to Gaara."

"Or Sakura," Naruto said, hoping at least mentioning the possibility that Sasuke wouldn't wipe the floor with her would keep him off her bad side.

"Now that you guys have settled that," Obito said, "let the second match of the second round of the Chuunin Exam Finals commence!"

"I still can't believe you're counting Gaara coming down here as a match," Naruto said, shaking his head ruefully.

"I can't believe you can't believe it," Obito returned. "We went over this earlier: there are no free rides! Gaara's just lucky his opponent was such a lightweight."

"Out of curiosity, how did you manage to pass your MSR?" Temari asked politely.

Obito shrugged. "Well, I did get promoted during wartime and the need for more fighters did tend to lower the standards. Why?"

"No reason," Temari said innocently. She turned to Naruto. "Are you ready?"

"Would it matter if I said I weren't?" Naruto shot back.

Temari shook her head. "Not really, but it never hurts to be polite."

Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Even when you're about to try and beat the crap out of someone?"

"Especially then," Temari confirmed. She raised her fan. "Ninpou Kamaitachi!"

"That's not good," Naruto said as he quickly ducked behind one of the trees that were in the arena for no real reason he could think of. Maybe to provide cover? He really hoped Temari wouldn't decide to outright do away with it.

The mini twisters that had erupted from Temari's fan were everywhere and the people sitting in the first half of the stadium felt the effects just as keenly as Naruto did, ensconced behind his tree. Unless he wanted to see if any of his wind techniques could match hers – bolstered as they were by her fan – and turn the match into a battle to see who had more control over the wind (which he suspected would be hers as that was her main attack plan and his basics were found in shadow clones), Naruto had little choice but to sit back and wait for it to pass.

Once the wind had dissipated, Naruto stepped out from behind the tree. "Impressive," he said.

"I would say the same," Temari said dryly, "but hiding behind a tree is a little lame for my tastes."

"There's nothing wrong about avoiding a powerful and stadium-affecting jutsu," Naruto defended. "Sure, I could have just let it hit me or try and counterattack but waiting for it to pass before making my move is ever so much more sensible and – dare I say it – Chuunin-like."

"You're fishing for a promotion!" Temari accused.

Naruto shrugged. "Aren't we all? Think fast." With that, he hurled a kunai at her.

Temari raised her fan and almost lazily blew it away. "Did you honestly think that would work on me?"

"Not really, no," Naruto admitted. "And even if you weren't so proficient with wind, a single kunai probably wouldn't have hit you once you'd seen me throw it but it never hurts to try."

"Well, you had your chance to counter and you wasted it on a kunai throw that you up and warned me about and so now it's my turn: Kamaitachi no Jutsu!"

Naruto decided that it was quite fortunate indeed that he'd only just stepped out from behind his trusty tree protector and quickly sidestepped the attack by moving once more behind it. He crouched to the ground to give her winds less of a target. Besides, he knew that attack. If he let himself get caught in it, it would carve up his body like hundreds of invisible blades.

"Will you quit running away?" Temari demanded.

"Hey, I haven't moved," Naruto defended. "You're the one who can't be bothered moving so as to force me to move if I don't want to get hit."

Temari sighed. "Excuses, excuses…"

"Since we seem to be operating under a turn-based combat system at present, allow me to go next," Naruto said. "Kage Bunshin!"

Temari eyed the three clones that suddenly appeared behind her opponent curiously. "What could you possibly use those for? I know when you fought Lee earlier you attacked him while he was trying to find the real you, but all I need to do is send some wind your way and see which ones dispel. That tree isn't big enough to fit four of you, after all."

Naruto nodded. "You have a point, but then again, there is more than one tree available. And who's to say that I would even bother protecting them when I could just summon more? All of that is moot, though."

"Really? How do you figure that?" Temari asked.

"My clones have their own way of protecting themselves," Naruto informed her as the three Kage Bunshin disappeared in a whirl of leaves and reappeared a few feet behind her and to each of her sides.

"What-?" Temari began.

Naruto didn't give her a chance to finish, though, as he and his clones quickly formed a Rasengan – just the unfinished version because God knows he didn't want to risk killing her – and sent it her way. "I'm actually not sure if you could redirect one of those," he confessed, "but good luck redirecting four of them." Since just getting hit with one Rasengan was almost guaranteed to cause serious injuries, Naruto put less chakra into it than usual and hoped Temari would dodge at least one of them.

Temari raised her hands – possibly to attempt a Shunshin of her own, possibly to try and stop herself from getting hit by all four of them – when a cloud of dust blown up by the attacks blocked his vision.

When the dust cleared, Temari was still standing but it was clear that she'd been hit, although how many times Naruto didn't know. What he did know was that her clothes were torn and she was bleeding, leaning on her fan, and was panting heavily.

"Are you going to give up?" Naruto asked her.

Temari shook her head vehemently. "It's the semi-finals; how can I possibly give up?"

Naruto took out a shuriken this time and lobbed it at his battered opponent. Again her fan came up to blow it away but a lot slower than before and she staggered a bit once it was no longer supporting her. "How can you not? I've lost some chakra, sure, but other than that I'm good to keep going. You, on the other hand, are pretty clearly injured and appear to be having some difficulty wielding that thing. If this were a real battle then yes, giving up might not be an option but if this were a mission than a tactical retreat would be a far more Chuunin thing to do than persisting in attacking when it would only get yourself and your team killed."

"You're saying that if I surrender I'll make Chuunin?" Temari asked skeptically.

"I'm saying that if you don't then you definitely won't," Naruto replied.

"You're just trying to get out of having to fight me," Temari charged.

"At this point, I could probably beat you anyway," Naruto pointed out. "And while I may not have a fan, I'm a wind elemental, too."

Temari closed her eyes as she considered it. After a long moment, she opened them again and – looking very much like she hated herself – reluctantly ground out, "I forfeit."

----

"I can't believe he used four Rasengan on her!" Minato exclaimed. "That girl could have been killed! I know that that's a risk in the Exam and everyone signed the waiver, but it's still overkill. I mean, FOUR Rasengan…"

"At least he had the sense to just use the initial form," Kakashi consoled him.

"Initial form?" the Kazekage asked, trying not to sound too curious.

"Alterations to jutsu are made all the time," Kakashi answered, wondering what the best way to avoid having to answer without ignoring the question or outright telling the foreign leader to mind his own business, which was sure to go over poorly. "Size, shape, color…"

Itachi blinked. "Color?"

"Ah, yes. It's actually Sasuke's fault that Naruto's been experimenting with that," Kakashi replied.

"How so?" Itachi asked.

Kakashi sighed. "Naruto thinks it's cheating to be able to determine the attack range of a jutsu through the color, which Sasuke can do. I don't think Naruto really needs to bother because it's not like the two don't spar often enough that they don't know practically all of each other's moves and unless things go horribly wrong they won't ever have a serious life-or-death fight against each other, but what can I say? Naruto has a lot of free time and with his Kage Bunshin he has even more."

"My son seems to have an extremely well-developed sense of fair play," Minato noted. "Although whether this will prove to be a boon or a burden in his quest to become Hokage remains to be seen."

"Your son wishes to succeed you?" the Kazekage asked, surprised.

Minato nodded. "I was surprised when I found out as most people his age aren't interested in the position and he knows that it involves a lot of long hours, but he's quite determined to become either the Godaime or Rokudaime. Are any of your children interested in taking over after you step down?"

Dying was a far more likely outcome, Kakashi knew, but it wouldn't be very diplomatic to outright say that, now would it?

The Kazekage considered the question. "Would you believe that I honestly don't know? I've never asked them. Temari has shown an interest in the workings of the government and I've often thought she would do well as a diplomat but I haven't really seen any great interest from Kankuro and Gaara hasn't really seemed to be interested in anything. Then again, they're still young, so who knows where they'll end up?"

"Naruto seems to be getting on quite well with all of your children, even if he and Kankuro did get off to a rough start," Minato noted. "So if one of them became Kazekage someday and Naruto become Hokage that should strengthen the alliance between our two villages."

"That would be quite the change from the current state of affairs," the Kazekage mused. "The Tsuchikage has been in office since before any of the rest of us were born and Kiri's so secretive we barely know anything about the new Mizukage or what happened to the old one."

"That's no way to keep alliances," Minato agreed. "Speaking of our children, though…"

"Yes?" the Kazekage asked.

"You're not upset that my son beat your daughter, are you?" Minato asked with a grin.

"…No," the Kazekage lied.

----

Naruto waited with Temari while she got examined and patched up by the medic standing by. Granted that medic was only supposed to get involved in the case of a life-threatening injury that needed to be treated immediately or couldn't be moved and Temari really should have gone to Tsunade, but she didn't want to miss the rest of the matches. After giving up arguing with her, the medic healed what he could and released her back to the balcony.

"So why did you wait?" Temari inquired as the pair began the long trek back to where the others were waiting. "I mean, it was thoughtful but I thought you were worried that your friends were going to be fighting?"

"Oh, no, I got that taken care of," Naruto replied cryptically. "And I'll confess I had possibly slightly less-than-altruistic motives for waiting."

Temari raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"I may need a human shield," Naruto told her sheepishly.

Temari crossed her arms. "I just finished one match; I'm not going to take a hit for you because you pissed someone off."

"Oh, they wouldn't attack you," Naruto assured her. "They'd just try and get me out from behind you."

Temari was about to ask who he'd managed to piss off badly enough he'd rely on a still-injured person as a means of protection when she reached the balcony and saw Sasuke, Sakura, and Kiba floating a few feet apart in sand cocoons. That answered that question.

"Thanks Gaara," Naruto said gratefully. "You're a lifesaver."

Gaara cocked his head. "I do not believe I have ever been called that before."

"Well you've officially earned the title today," Naruto assured him. "After all, if they got into a fight and jeopardized their chances of becoming a Chuunin and consequentially my chances of avoiding intense youth training for a year with Gai then I very well might have killed them." He paused. "Which would be a bad things as they are my best friends. And Hinata-chan would probably be upset if anything were to happen to Kiba."

"It would be troublesome," Shikamaru agreed.

"Hey!" Kiba objected. "Are you saying you don't think of me as a close friend?"

Naruto elected to answer his question with a question of his own. "Do you still think I'm in love with Sasuke?"

Kiba snorted. "That's not going to change anytime soon."

"Well, there you have it." Naruto turned his attention back to Gaara. "Did they give you any trouble?"

Gaara shook his head. "No but they did plan out some very creative ways to kill you so I would watch out for them. Especially that one." He pointed at Sakura.

"Sakura?" Naruto asked, confused. He would have thought Sasuke would be the most experienced in planning out how to kill people since he'd been doing it for over ten years now.

"What can I say?" Sakura asked. "Medics have a far greater knowledge of the human body than most people and that does come in handy. I mean, just look at Kabuto."

"Kabuto?" Shino inquired. "The genin that gave up before the preliminary round?"

Sakura nodded.

Kiba burst out laughing. "That guy's pathetic! He tried to give up after we first met Anko! Not that I can blame him, mind you, but still!"

"Pathetic people can still be evil," Sasuke pointed out. "And can you let us down? The match between Sakura and I is going to take place in a minute and I don't think it will be very riveting if neither of us can move."

Gaara looked to Naruto.

Naruto nodded. "Go ahead."

With that, all of the sand that had been holding the three genin hostage dispersed and went back into Gaara's gourd.

"I still can't believe that he did that for the entire match," Sakura said, bemused, as she landed.

"What can I say?" Naruto said smugly. "Gaara clearly likes me more than all three of you put together."

"He does not!" Sakura insisted.

"There is no way he likes you more than Sakura and I," Sasuke agreed. "I mean, Kiba, sure but- "

"Wait," Kiba interrupted. "Why is it 'Kiba, sure'? He likes me just fine!"

"He barely knows you," Sakura reminded him.

"Sakura and I have spent just as much time with him as you did," Sasuke told Naruto.

"If he doesn't like me better than why would he do what I wanted as opposed to what you guys would want?" Naruto challenged.

"This is so surreal," Temari remarked as she and Gaara watched the four bicker about who Gaara liked better. "I honestly never thought I'd live to see the day someone was having this kind of conversation."

"Me neither," Gaara agreed. "Konoha is…strange. But it's a good strange. I don't think I want anything to happen to it."

Temari's breath caught. "Gaara-"

"Why would something happen to Konoha?" Shikamaru asked sharply.

"It wouldn't," Temari said quickly. "He's just saying that for future reference, like how I don't want anything to happen to Suna or you wouldn't want anything to happen to Konoha."

"I see," Shikamaru said, looking thoroughly unconvinced.

"The third match is between Sakura and Sasuke," Obito announced. "Will you two please get down here?"

That halted the argument.

"Try not to kill each other, alright?" Naruto implored. "If nothing else, I wouldn't put it past Kakashi to use one of your deaths count as not all of us making Chuunin and making us go through with…it."

Sasuke smirked. "Don't worry; I'll be back in ten minutes. If that."

Sakura's eye twitched. "I make no promises."

Chapter Text

Sasuke had to admit, he was a little curious to see how good Sakura actually was. He hadn't seen her go all out in quite awhile, not since he returned to Konoha. Since coming back, he'd seen her against Zabuza, but since she was fighting alongside him, Naruto, and Kakashi it was a rather short battle. He had seen her against Hinata, but thanks to Naruto's plea that was more of a test of dodging and endurance for his teammate. Then of course there was the fight with Neji. If it landed the prodigy in the hospital it had to involve some effort on her part but Sasuke knew next to nothing about as Naruto hadn't felt the need to hurry his lunch up in the slightest.

Of course, throughout the entire course of their association, Sakura had never been able to beat him and there really wasn't any way she was going to start now. The question was: was she going to make this match worth his time?

"Let's try and at least make this match last as long as the one with Kiba did," Sasuke suggested as he and Sakura descended the stairs together.

Sakura stopped and turned to glare at him. "Do you honestly think that fighting me could POSSIBLY take less time than taking out Kiba? I mean, don't get me wrong, he's fairly talented and all, but he's only been at this for a few months. I've spent years on this."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "So you're saying that you think you can manage it?"

"Yes, I can manage it," Sakura growled.

"Are you sure?" Sasuke asked innocently. "Because if not, I'm sure that I can get Naruto to eat up time if need be."

"God knows that will probably end up happening anyway," Sakura informed him. "Seeing as it has happened every other match so far. Well, except for the last one but that was because Naruto was actually fighting. He did it during the Lee one, though."

"That's an excellent point, Sakura," Sasuke replied pleasantly. "It won't even look suspicious at all. And there are so many options to choose from. I could always say a double entendre involving Naruto and get Kiba all excited or maybe remark that Naruto and Temari are spending an awful lot of time together and watch Naruto try and insist that Shikamaru and Temari will end up together while disturbing Temari due to the fact we're all twelve or thirteen. Of course, that's likely to get Kiba back in fanboy mode again, too…"

"That's really not necessary," Sakura insisted, shoving her hair behind her ears angrily.

"If you're certain," Sasuke agreed, stepping out onto the stadium floor. "Be sure to let me know if you change your mind, okay? Or say something to Naruto – or Kiba, I guess – yourself."

Yes, if that didn't piss her off enough to try and murder him during their match, nothing would. Sasuke briefly wondered what it would be like to have a friendship that didn't in some way involve some sort of homicidal urges but quickly dismissed the idea as being for lesser mortals. And non-ninja.

"Alright, are you two both ready?" Obito asked them.

Sakura and Sasuke both nodded, looking determined.

"Okay, I would like to remind both of you – especially you, Sakura – that while killing your opponent is technically within the rules the exam proctors are asked to weigh in on the stableness of each of the potential Chuunin for the MSR and killing my baby cousin strikes me as a sign of a truly diseased mind," Obito said cheerfully.

"It might be worth it," Sakura muttered. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Gai escorting Lee and Neji into the stands. She couldn't hear him, but he appeared to be waxing poetic once again about the power of youth. "But then again…"

"Wait, you get to weigh in on that?" Sasuke asked, a little alarmed. "Who else gets a say?"

Obito shrugged. "Well, the Jounin instructors also get to give their opinion. Since everyone wants their students to advance, it's usually just a perfunctory approval but every now and then an instructor thinks their student is one humiliating defeat away from attempting to kill their teammates and ditching Konoha. Obviously, these people aren't ready to be Chuunin, but since the exam must be entered as a team they occasionally make it to the finals anyway."

Well, that was one thing Sasuke didn't have to worry about at least; Kakashi wanted Team Seven to become Chuunins even more than his decidedly anti-youth team did.

Obito waited to see if there were any more questions. After a moment, he continued with, "Now that that's settled…begin."

The moment the words were out of Obito's mouth, Sasuke found several sharp objects hurtling quickly in his general direction. Sasuke was forced to activate his Sharingan in order to avoid all of them. Normally, he would have had his doujutsu activated from the start, but annoying Sakura and worrying about who exactly was deciding how sane he was (and were Ibiki and Anko really the best judges of sanity? At least Anko liked him) had distracted him. On the bright side, Sakura would probably take it as yet another sign that he wasn't taking this seriously.

"Sasuke," Sakura called sweetly.

"…Yes?" Sasuke answered cautiously.

"It occurs to me that it would be remiss of me not to let you know ahead of time that should you use your Tsukuyomi on me during the match I swear to God I will be withdrawing from the Exam," Sakura warned.

Sasuke crinkled his forehead. "CAN you withdraw after you lose? Because you know that should I trap you in my Tsukuyomi you will lose the match."

"I know," Sakura nodded. "But will they really make me a Chuunin if I go to them and let them know that I don't want to be? Or failing that start cackling maniacally?"

Sasuke's eyes widened in horror as he realized just what exactly she was threatening. "You. Wouldn't."

Sakura merely smiled at him. "Try me."

----

"Out of curiosity, why is that girl threatening to prevent herself from having any chance of making Chuunin this exam such a horrifying prospect to the Uchiha boy?" the Kazekage asked, somewhat confused.

"Teamwork is very important to my team," Kakashi claimed.

"Really?" Itachi asked skeptically. "Because Sakura seems quite intent on killing my brother."

"Ah well," Kakashi said dismissively, "as long as she doesn't shove a Chidori through his chest, it's nothing to be concerned about."

That disturbed Minato enough to turn his attention away from the fight and to his son's teacher. "You said you hadn't taught her the Chidori!"

"I haven't," Kakashi quickly assured him.

"And Naruto doesn't know it either?" Minato asked anxiously. "Because knowing him he'll try to combine that and the Rasengan and he won't be properly supervised and there will be a massive explosion."

"And massive piles of paperwork," the Kazekage added helpfully.

"Exactly," Minato said absently, still watching Kakashi expectantly.

"No, I would never be so irresponsible!" Kakashi claimed, sounding shocked. Not to mention that teaching someone the Chidori took time and was incredibly dangerous to use without a Sharingan. Not like Kakashi would let that stop him of course: if Sasuke was going to go around using his signature technique than there was no way in hell he wasn't going to. And besides, Naruto had enough of A-ranked Jutsu as it was.

"I really hate to say this," Minato said slowly, glancing at Itachi, "but are you trying to say that you think Sasuke might try to kill either my son or Sakura?"

Kakashi paused to consider the question, which wasn't exactly the vehement denial the Yondaime was hoping for. "At this point I highly doubt that."

"Only highly doubt it?" Minato was rather persistent when it was a question of Naruto's safety. Of course, Kakashi had realized that when he watched Konoha's attitude towards their resident Jinchuriki turn from scorn and hatred – although it had admittedly mellowed out starting after Orochimaru's invasion and culminating when Naruto's Therapy Jutsu had led to half the town being brought back from the dead – to gratitude and admiration over the course of two lifetimes.

"I'm a ninja," Kakashi explained, "and I associate with Naruto. I never rule anything out until it is definitely impossible and even then I wait a few weeks before declaring it so."

"You sounded certain about Naruto and Sakura," Minato pointed out.

"To be fair, Sakura and Naruto don't actually know the Chidori, so it is a safe assumption to make that they won't be killing anyone with it anytime soon," Kakashi countered neatly.

This didn't seem to reassure the Hokage. "Does that mean that you think that they will try to kill each other in a different way?"

"Naruto, definitely not," Kakashi knew that much, at least. He'd spent too much time chasing Sasuke to ever even think about killing either of them. "Sakura…well, she'd better not but if Sasuke hadn't dodged at the last second that last chakra-infused punch would have probably taken his head off."

"So did you bet on this match?" Minato wanted to know.

Kakashi shook his head ruefully. "Alas, no. If betting on the match of one student is suspect, betting on a match with both of them would be just asking for an inquest."

"An inquest?" Itachi repeated. "It would be cheating at gambling not murder."

"I wouldn't be too sure," Kakashi said solemnly. "Some people take their gambling very seriously."

"You know, you never actually answered my question," the Kazekage reminded him.

Kakashi blinked. "You had a question? I'm sorry, but I simply don't remember what you asked."

"Why is the girl using not becoming a Chuunin as a threat and why does it appear to be working?" the Kazekage repeated patiently.

"Oh. If they don't all make Chuunin then I will be forced to concede that Gai was right," Kakashi shuddered at this, "and humbly asked that if that should happen then he will help train them for a year."

"Extra training?" the Kazekage still didn't get it. "Why is that bad?"

Itachi leaned over and pointed towards Gai. "That's him."

The Kazekage drew back. "I see. That's ruthless."

"And Chuunin-like?" Kakashi asked hopefully.

"Perhaps," the Kazekage allowed.

----

"You know," Sasuke said conversationally as he sidestepped yet another killer blow from Sakura, "this really isn't the way to make Chuunin."

"That's fine, I can always take the exam with Ino and Choji should Shikamaru pass," Sakura replied. Sasuke knew he couldn't block her without risking serious injury, even if he wouldn't admit it, so he'd been mostly just dodging thus far.

"That won't save you from Gai," Sasuke pointed out.

"Unless I was to hear another rant on youth right now, I feel that it would be worth it," Sakura decided.

"Naruto will never forgive you," Sasuke tried.

Sakura shook her head. "He's forgiven you for worse."

"Which is why he would be pissed if you killed me," Sasuke replied. He paused. "Although the youth training would get to him as well."

Sakura narrowed her eyes as she continued to fail to land a solid hit. "And speaking of Naruto, I'm starting to agree with him on the whole 'Sharingan is cheating' thing."

"Hey, you should just be happy that I haven't switched over to the Mangekyou Sharingan yet," Sasuke informed her. "After all, no Tsukuyomi doesn't necessarily mean no Amaterasu or Susanoo."

"In such a crowded stadium?" Sakura scoffed. "That's just asking for disaster."

"You know I can control the flames and Susanoo's far safer to use now than when I first got it," Sasuke objected.

"That's really not filling me with confidence, Sasuke," Sakura said flatly.

"That's fine," Sasuke said agreeably. "That's Naruto's job anyway." He took a deep breath. "Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu."

Sakura stood still for a moment, staring at the giant fireball heading towards her. "Really, Sasuke? Since when has that technique ever been good for anything besides a distraction?" she demanded as she leapt out of the way.

"I'm sure it's been good for something else at some point," Sasuke insisted, landing behind her. "After all, it's a giant freaking fireball."

Sakura quickly turned around to punch him in the face and Sasuke brought up his arm to protect his head.

"Chidori Nagashi," Sasuke muttered right before there was a sickening crack. Sasuke, being Sasuke, didn't wince or react at all but it was clear his arm was broken.

Sakura didn't move.

"Sakura?"Sasuke asked innocently.

She still didn't move.

"I'm concerned," Sasuke claimed. "Can someone check on her?"

Obito dutifully moved to exam Sakura. "She appears to be paralyzed."

"Does that mean I win?" Sasuke asked.

Obito nodded. "Either that or I let you try and kill an incapacitated opponent."

"Don't feel too bad, Sakura," Sasuke smirked. "I'm sure that took at least fifteen minutes."

Shortly thereafter, Sasuke and Sakura were on their way back to the balcony after having their broken arm and paralysis, respectively, cured by Tsunade.

"I thought you weren't going to use the Chidori on your friends anymore," Sakura said to break the silence.

"Technically, I only promised not to use it on Naruto anymore," Sasuke pointed out.

Sakura rolled her eyes. "You knew what Kakashi was asking."

"True," Sasuke admitted. "But the Chidori Nagashi doesn't kill, it just paralyzes and the only reason I'm not supposed to use the regular Chidori is because it is supposedly an assassination jutsu, even if it will blow your cover the second you use it."

"So if you had to rely on a variation of a forbidden technique does that mean that you weren't disappointed with the match?" Sakura inquired.

"…Maybe," Sasuke admitted grudgingly, not liking where this was going.

"And does that mean you're going to stop insisting, implying, or referencing me sucking?" Sakura pressed.

Sasuke didn't say anything.

"Sasuke!"

Sasuke sighed theatrically. "Fine…although I make no promises about referencing because honestly, before I left…"

"I suppose that will have to do," Sakura decided reluctantly.

As they reached the top of the stairs, they heard Naruto saying, "For the last time, yes I'm sure that we made sure to mention that attempting to kill your friends is generally a bad idea."

"I'm just concerned that you used the word 'generally' instead of 'always'," Temari explained. "I mean, for some reason my brother seems to be listening to you-"

"Because he likes me best," Naruto interrupted once he saw his teammates.

Temari rolled her eyes. "Whatever. And when Gaara tries to kill something, something dies."

"Well, over the years Sasuke, Sakura, and I have come to accept that attempted homicide is just something that's going to happen on occasion. If it were actual homicide, the non-involved party might complain but other than that, who cares?" Naruto asks rhetorically.

"I don't think any of us have tried to kill Kakashi," Sasuke added. "But I could be wrong. It wasn't from any lack of desire on our parts, or at least my part, I assure you."

"What are you guys even talking about?" Sakura asked them.

"Temari finally got around to asking what kind of friendship lessons we've been giving Gaara," Naruto answered.

"Hey, when this is all over you're not the one who's going to have to deal with whatever changes you've caused," Temari pointed out. "I'm just being a concerned sister."

"I still think you're overreacting," Naruto exclaimed. "I mean, I've only seen Gaara kill one person in the entire course of our friendship and he was from Oto."

"Why does that matter?" Gaara asked.

"Because everyone from Oto is evil," Naruto responded automatically. He laughed sheepishly. "Not that I'm biased, or anything."

Sasuke felt obliged to clear up the misunderstanding. "They're not all evil. They just have a Kage who has an unhealthy fondness for suicide missions so he very well might have died soon either way."

"And don't forget the waiver he signed," Sakura spoke up.

"Aren't you up again next?" Kiba asked.

Sasuke nodded. "Yeah, the minute he calls me-"

"Now, for the third round of the Chuunin Exam Finals," Obito announced. "Your first match: Namikaze Naruto."

"Or not," Sasuke muttered.

"Don't worry, this will take even shorter than your match against Sakura," Naruto promised.

Sakura glared at him. "WHAT did you just say?"

Naruto looked trapped. "Um…that is…"

Shikamaru lazily walked over to Naruto and shoved him down to the ground floor. "Do the world a favor: push a stupid person," he murmured.

"Oh, the irony!" Naruto cried on his way down.

Chapter Text

"The winner is Namikaze Naruto," Obito announced. "How do you feel about making it to the finals, Naruto?"

Naruto shrugged. "I really just want to fight Sasuke. Should he lose to Gaara I'm going to be kind of pissed. Don't get me wrong; fighting Gaara would be fun, too, but he's just not my epic rival, you know?"

Obito nodded and glanced at Kakashi. "I think I do. Either way, you've done well to win your three matches and deserve your spot in the finals."

"Not that I disagree or anything," Naruto began carefully, "because I totally think I should be in the finals, but was that last 'match' really that big a deal? I mean, I wasn't actually fighting anyone."

"Which is why if you had lost you wouldn't have deserved to be in the finals or ever make Chuunin ever," Obito explained.

"Well, yeah, but what would happen in that case? Would whoever won the next fight have a bye for the finals or would that match automatically be the finals?" Naruto queried.

"You know, I don't know," Obito confessed. "Fortunately, we do not need to worry about that seeing as how you've prove successful in your fight against the elusive bye."

"Seriously, you're having way too much fun with this," Naruto said bluntly.

"What am I supposed to do?" Obito demanded. "Just stand here and stop you guys from cheating too obviously or killing each other unnecessarily?"

"That does sound like the job description for exam proctor, yes," Naruto agreed.

"Well too bad. Those are really more like guidelines anyway," Obito insisted. "Now hurry up and go back to your friends. It's time for Sasuke to go up against Gaara."

----

"What are you writing?" Kakashi asked, watching the Kazekage scribbling furiously on a piece of paper.

"It's now the second match of the semi-finals," the Kazekage explained. "By now, we've all gotten a pretty good idea of who should advance and who should try again in six months. I'm just making my recommendations and listing my reasons why or why not."

"There are still two more matches, though," Minato pointed out. "And given that they are between Sasuke and Gaara and then the winner of that fight against Naruto, I'm sure they'll prove to be spectacular."

"True," the Kazekage allowed. "But I can always edit my recommendations later. I'm just trying to get it all down while it's still fresh in my mind. There, done." The Kazekage folded the paper into fourths and held it out to Kakashi. "Will you hold onto this for me?"

"I suppose," Kakashi replied, taking the paper. "Any particular reason you can't hold onto it yourself? Or why you want me to do so?"

"Well, as you know, Tsunade of the Sannin has recently won a bet. I have not ever met her personally, but her reputation precedes her and should the cataclysmic disaster that usually follows anything that could reasonably be considered 'good luck' for anyone else occur before this exam's new Chuunins are decided upon, I do not wish to see all the time and effort I put into my choices go to waste," the Kazekage explained.

"That makes sense," Kakashi conceded. "But what makes you think it would be any safer with me? As a bodyguard, I would face whatever natural or unnatural disaster should strike before either you or Hokage-sama."

The Kazekage snorted. "You have a reputation as well. I'm sure if you place my recommendations inside the pages of your book, no harm will come to it."

"He's got you there, Kakashi," Minato said with a smile.

"Fine…" Kakashi sighed, tucking the paper inside the pages of his precious novel.

"Speaking of Tsunade and betting…did she make any other bets I should be aware of?" Minato asked. "Please tell me no one would be so stupid as to let her place another bet after having already won once."

"Indeed she did, Hokage-sama," Itachi responded. "Normally, I do not believe they would have allowed her to place another bet without her having to threaten them first, but in this case they thought it was so outlandish they agreed with her that it would balance out her win."

"What did she bet?" Minato pressed.

"She suggested that the exams would end in an invasion," Itachi informed him.

The Kazekage immediately started coughing.

"Are you okay?" Minato asked, turning towards his fellow Kage.

"I'm fine," the Kazekage claimed. "That's such a horrible thing to bet!"

"I'm not so sure about that," Kakashi disagreed. "After all, that's how I bet this match would end."

Minato stared at him. "Why?" he asked finally.

Kakashi shrugged. "I couldn't resist. Besides, what are the odds?"

----

"I've never been fond of subtly so I'm just going to come right out and ask," Sasuke told Gaara as the two made their way down to start their match. "Are you going to try and kill me?"

Gaara shook his head. "After what your cousin said to Sakura about how killing you would hurt her chances of advancing, I think that would be a bad idea. After all, there are only two more times I need to avoid killing people, I don't want to kill Naruto, and not making Chuunin would make this entire month of abstaining from killing entirely pointless."

If it were Naruto, he probably would have said something about how Gaara was sure to live a happier and more fulfilling life if he didn't go around indiscriminately killing people and perhaps even waxed poetic about becoming a Kage and tried to convince Gaara to aim for that as well. Sakura probably also would have tried to convince him that mass murder is rarely the answer. Sasuke, however, latched on to a different part of Gaara's statement. "What, so you'd be okay with killing me but not Naruto?" he demanded.

Gaara gave him a strange look. "Yes. I think Naruto is probably the last person I would want to kill."

Sasuke groaned. "So you do like him better than Sakura and I. Oh well, I can't really say that I'm surprised. You didn't tell him this, did you?"

Gaara blinked at the sudden urgency in Sasuke's voice. "I have not."

"Good," Sasuke said, sighing in relief. "Because God knows he'd never let us live that down."

"Do you have any intention of trying to kill me?" Gaara inquired. "You would not succeed, of course, but it would be nice to know your intentions."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Sasuke answered honestly. "After all, if I killed you that meant that I would win the match by default and my ensuing fight with Naruto would be a lot more about morality and a lot less about our epic rivalry. Seriously, have you ever fought Naruto while he insisted on lecturing you? It really sucks the fun out of it."

"I shall keep that in mind when I'm trying not to kill you," Gaara said solemnly. "He did say you are his best friend, so he would probably take your death harder than most."

Sasuke shook his head ruefully. "I still can't believe that after all this time he's still insistent that I'm his best friend. Just because I called him my best friend right before trying to kill him is no reason to…"

"You are his best friend because you said so right before trying to kill him?" Gaara asked, confused.

Realizing that that line of thinking would not end well, Sasuke quickly amended his previous statement. "I…was having some issues and we mostly were already best friends, we just had yet to verbalize it. Naruto's different from other people and so that wouldn't work on them. Hell, it wouldn't even work on Naruto anymore since I got there first and he only has enough room in his life to obsess over one best friend."

Gaara didn't reply as they'd finally reached Obito.

"Are you two ready for your epic but better-not-end-in-Sasuke's-death match?" Obito asked them. He appeared to be waiting for a reply and since Gaara didn't seem particularly inclined to give one, Sasuke stepped up to the plate.

"Hn."

Apparently that was good enough for Obito, for his next words were, "Ready? Begin."

Immediately, sand began to rise from Gaara's gourd.

Sasuke, knowing full well Gaara could outwait him, decided to start things off by throwing a pair of shuriken at the future Kazekage.

As predicted, a wall of sand rose up to block the blow to Gaara's head as the boy didn't move an inch. Not content to just let the shuriken fall harmlessly to the ground, the sand shield became a sand clone with Sasuke's shuriken clenched in its fist.

Long-ranged attacks were very, very rarely any good against Gaara, so the best thing to do was move in. Of course, the sand clone wasn't about to let that happen and moved forward to stop him. Sasuke aimed a high kick at the clone's head, which it blocked with its arm. Of course, being made of sand meant that the hand came right off, but quickly reformed.

Annoyed, Sasuke made sure to punch straight through it on his next swing and quickly continued to Gaara. The sand shield rose up to protect him so Sasuke moved around to the back and punched Gaara in the face, which was something he'd been meaning to do for years. Sure, Naruto claimed Gaara wasn't' really trying to be his new best friend, but Sasuke had remained unconvinced and never let it be said that he wasn't possessive.

Gaara blinked in shock but came to his senses quickly enough and clambered to his feet. He was just forming his sand shield around him again when Sasuke chose to press his advantage and delivered a powerful kick to the throat, which sent the other boy flying backwards. God knows if he had kicked a civilian in the throat at that speed and with that level of force, he'd have an inquest to deal with so it was fortunate that was nothing more than a mild inconvenience for a ninja.

When Gaara got to his feet again, he quickly called his sand to him and it began to form a shield completely around him. Sasuke eyed the sand dome and tried to remember if he'd seen it before as he punched it experimentally. It was hard as a rock. Sasuke really didn't know what he was trying to accomplish. Granted, Sasuke couldn't win if he couldn't get to Gaara, but it's not like Gaara could get to him when he was nestled in that sand cocoon. Surely he wasn't about to transform, was he? He really didn't have a great deal of control over that from what Sasuke remembered. That was part of why he'd been so homicidal in the first place.

Still, letting Gaara finish whatever he was doing would probably fall squarely in the category of 'not good' so Sasuke decided to use his signature move. He moved to the edge of the arena and then ran straight back at Gaara. This time when he punched the sand barrier, he used the Chidori.

"This fight's boring," Naruto complained. "Gaara hasn't even tried to crush Sasuke once!"

"Well, that usually ends in death so we should be glad that he seems to be avoiding that," Sakura told him.

Naruto glanced over at her. "Does this means you're no longer out to kill him?"

Sakura shrugged. "Besides, Gaara's worked really hard to meet his MSR."

"Yeah, I guess…" Naruto trailed off as he let his eyes roam around the stadium, searching for something more interesting. His eyes widened in horror. "No. No, no, no!"

"What's wrong?" Kiba asked absently.

"People in the crowd keep falling asleep. I'd say half of them are out of it already. Either they agree with me that this is boring or someone put a genjutsu on them," Naruto announced.

"Why would anyone put a genjutsu on the crowd?" Temari asked. "I mean, if something's happening, civilians aren't going to be doing anything but getting in the way. Oh my God!"

"What?" Shikamaru asked, forcing himself to pay attention now that it seemed like something underhanded was going on.

"Gaara's impenetrable defense was just…penetrated!" Temari finished, a little lamely.

"There's no such thing as an 'impenetrable' defense," Naruto lectured. "If you apply enough force and/or speed, it will crack."

"But this has never happened to Gaara before," Temari said, her eyes wide.

"Well, he's never come up against the Chidori before," Sakura replied.

"Damn it, why isn't Kankuro up here?" Temari demanded.

Shikamaru shrugged. "There's no reason for him not to be. Ino was up here to yell at me earlier and Kiba, Sakura, you, and I haven't felt the need to leave since we lost."

"Why do you need puppet guy?" Kiba asked.

"Because then I could have someone to freak out with about the fact that a giant distinctly non-human arm just emerged from Gaara's sand shield and try to smash Sasuke!" Temari exclaimed.

"I'll freak out with you," Naruto said magnanimously. "It would probably be more interesting anyway. I probably understand what happens during a transformation better than anyone else here anyway."

"That would be nice, thank you," Temari said. "I always feel foolish freaking out alone."

Suddenly the sand melted away to reveal Gaara, looking completely human but clutching his arm. "What did you do to me?" he demanded.

"I made you bleed," Sasuke replied casually. "It happens."

"Not to me," Gaara insisted. His eyes snapped shut suddenly and he raised a shaking hand to his forehead.

"Are you okay, kid?" Obito asked, a little concerned.

"I'm fine," Gaara lied. "Just a massive headache."

Abruptly, the world was filled with feathers.

"What the-?" Kiba asked, before passing out.

Everyone else in the stadium box dispelled the genjutsu with relative ease and Sakura woke up Kiba.

"You know," Naruto said, eye twitching, "someone is going to have to die for preventing me from getting to face him."

"What should we do?" Sakura asked. "Sasuke should be okay but who knows what's going on in the Kage box?"

"We can't do anything about that," Naruto pointed out. "It's sure to be a little out of our league. I'm going to go get Sasuke. You need to go find Gai and tell him about the imposter."

"Is he an imposter, though?" Sakura asked.

"Who knows?" Naruto replied. "But he's the loudest person I know and if anyone can get the word out, he can."

"Okay," Sakura nodded. "I'll also try and wake up the others."

"We'll go with you," Kiba said.

Shikamaru nodded.

They all looked expectantly at Temari. "I'm…going to go see Gaara. He really looks like he needs me right now."

"Seriously, though," Naruto grumbled as he got ready to move. "If I hadn't sworn off vengeance…"

"Don't worry," Sakura assured him. "Sasuke looks just as pissed. I'm sure he'll seek ten times the vengeance you might want. And Kakashi's actually up there and this could affect our chances for a promotion. Hell, I might even help because now I have to deal with the two of you while you sulk about this."

"Thanks Sakura," Naruto beamed at her. "You're the greatest."

"What did we get ourselves into?" Temari wondered, not for the first time.

Chapter Text

Minato stood up to see why someone had put a large-scale genjutsu over the crowd when someone put their arm around him. Immediately, he took out a kunai and stabbed the offending arm before breaking free. Turning to face his molester, he saw the Kazekage's hand bleeding.

"Is there a reason you just grabbed me?" Minato asked the Kazekage, a little disturbed. "Because the only reasons I can think of for your actions are you were trying to kidnap me or trying to grope me."

"Relations between Kages really wouldn't end well," Kakashi opined. "And I've never seen him interested in anyone but Kushina anyway."

"I was NOT trying to grope you," the Kazekage insisted. "One of these days people are going to realize I'm not a pedophile and if I were you would be far too old for me…"

"So you were trying to kidnap me?" Minato asked, raising an eyebrow. "You would try to steal the Hokage away from the heart of Konoha? That is the height of foolishness."

"I was actually just trying to take you to the roof so I could kill you," the Kazekage explained.

"And we couldn't fight here because-?" Minato questioned.

"It's kind of cramped," the Kazekage explained. "Not to mention it would be difficult to set up the barrier…"

"It's not like I'm going to be running from a fight with you, Kazekage-sama," Minato assured him. "That would endanger my shinobi and dealing with you is my responsibility. What do you honestly hope to accomplish with this attack?"

"Isn't it obvious?" the Kazekage returned. "I'm trying to start a war."

"A war?" Minato repeated. "Because the Wind Daimyo has been favoring Konoha recently and cutting back on Suna's forces?"

The Kazekage laughed. "That is the rhetoric I used to convince the old fools on the council, but no. I just want to destroy Konoha. In fact, I even joined a club devoted to that very purpose."

"You know," Kakashi said casually, deciding to see once and for all whether or not things had changed since the invasion was still on and had – ironically enough – started during the exact same match. "I get that you're bitter but if you had just put on that damn necklace you might have stood a better chance. You really shot yourself in the foot there."

Minato's eyes widened. "Necklace? You mean…Orochimaru?"

There was a dark chuckle. "Who else?"

"I can think of a good dozen and a half people who would pull something like this off the top of my head," Kakashi offered.

"Be that as it may, it is me, the rightful Yondaime!" the Kazekage declared, ripping off his face to reveal that he was, in fact, Orochimaru.

"I could be wrong," Minato said dubiously, "but I'm fairly certain one of the job requirements for Kage is 'a lack of desire to kill your people and destroy your village.'"

"I knew I was missing something," Orochimaru deadpanned.

----

By the time Naruto and Temari reached Sasuke and Gaara, Baki and Kankuro were already there.

"Thank you so much for leaving me alone up there to freak out about Gaara not following the plan," Temari fumed, smacking her puppet-obsessed brother on the head.

"Hey, it's not my fault!" Kankuro protested. "I didn't make the finals, remember?"

"Which was totally your own damn fault for not taking this seriously," Temari reminded him. "And little details like 'don't belong in the box' didn't actually stop ANYONE from Konoha."

"Well, to be fair those people are crazy," Kankuro replied.

"Hey!" Naruto objected.

"Do you still think I'm evil?" Kankuro demanded, turning to him.

"I…forget," Naruto confessed.

Kankuro turned back to his sister. "Case in point."

"Gaara, do you remember the plan?" Baki asked urgently.

Gaara ignored him.

"Gaara?" Baki tried again.

Obito sighed. "Hold on." He stepped between the still-fighting pair. "You guys can stop fighting. The Chuunin Exam is over."

"Good," Gaara said. "Because I swear, this headache is getting really bad…"

"Did I win?" Sasuke demanded. "Because if I didn't win and the match is just 'over' then I refuse to acknowledge that."

Obito rolled his eyes. "Fine, yes you won because Suna appears to be invading. And Oto. And a couple of ANBU, but they are probably spies if not outright invaders who stole ANBU masks."

"Do you remember the plan, Gaara?" Baki asked again.

Gaara nodded. "Yes, it was 'wipe out the Oto shinobi', right?"

"...Did Gaara just defect?" Kankuro asked, stunned.

Temari sighed. "Probably."

"I don't get it," Kankuro murmured. "He's always hated Suna and now he loves Konoha?"

"I'm not surprised; this has been coming on since Naruto decided you were the evil one," Temari told him.

"I'm nearly positive he hadn't defected when we got up today. Why didn't you stop him?" Kankuro asked accusingly.

"He didn't say anything until right before Sasuke and Sakura's fight!" Temari defended herself. "And how was I supposed to stop it? They're nice to him. Trying to make him leave so as not to get influenced wouldn't work as we can't make Gaara do anything and it would only serve to further contrast our behavior with that of the Konoha shinobi we know and push him even further to their side."

Baki shook his head. "No, it was wipe out the Konoha shinobi. The ones with the misshapen leaf on their forehead protectors instead of the random musical note."

Gaara cocked his head. "Really? Because I could have sworn when I heard about the plan it was Oto shinobi. If the Konoha thing is a last-minute change, you should know I do not do well with those."

"No, it was ALWAYS killing Konoha shinobi," Baki attempted to convince Suna's not-so-secret weapon. "Can you handle that or do we need to abort your mission?"

"I assure you, I am perfectly ready and willing to kill Oto shinobi," Gaara answered. He turned to Obito. "Would that negatively affect my chances of making Chuunin?"

Surprised, Obito shook his head. "As long as you don't start killing people indiscriminately and only go after invaders, it really shouldn't be a problem."

"Yes, it would be a very big problem," Baki countered. "Seeing as how Oto are our allies in th-"

"WHAT? YOU'RE SAYING THAT THE UNYOUTHFUL FIEND OROCHIMARU UNYOUTHFULLY MURDERED THE KAZEKAGE AND TOOK HIS PLACE SO AS TO TRICK SUNA INTO INVADING AND STARTING A POINTLESS AND DESTRUCTIVE WAR?" Gai cried out, shocked and horrified.

Baki, Temari, and Kankuro automatically turned towards their Kazekage only a pale black-haired man standing in his robes.

"Is that Orochimaru?" Kankuro asked.

Sasuke nodded grimly. "Yes, it is." He paused. "He also killed my family."

Naruto groaned. "SO not the time, Sasuke."

"It looks like we've been set up," Baki growled. "Gaara…if you're sure you can handle it, go off and kill all the Oto shinobi you can find. We need to spread the word about the Kazekage. We will not throw our lives away for a Konoha ninja's petty revenge fantasy."

"Sasuke, as much as I know you like siding with anyone who is out to get vengeance, you already tried that and it would get in the way of your own need for vengeance against Orochimaru so don't even think about it," Naruto warned.

"I won't," Sasuke promised. "After all, while some may not think preventing us from fighting is enough cause to kill someone…well, I've sought vengeance for less."

---

"Sakura, I am impressed that you've already managed to kill ten Oto shinobi," Gai complimented. "You seem quite youthful in your eagerness to help keep Konoha safe."

"I didn't get to work out all my frustration with Sasuke during our match," Sakura explained. "And ruining the tournament just so he could invade…would it really have killed him to wait? Now I'm going to have to deal with a pair of pissed-off preteen boys."

"I am not really sure that I can properly sympathize as the adorable Lee and Neji are not really ones to get 'pissed-off'," Gai told her. "But whatever helps you keep our home safe. If it's true about Orochimaru, then do you think Hokage-sama be okay? This is really serious."

"He survived raising Naruto with his sanity more or less intact, didn't he?" Sakura replied with a grin. "That's not a task for the faint of heart. And besides, he's the Hokage, the leader of the Village of Konoha. He's not going to go down easily."

"Okay, we woke up the others," Kiba announced, running back to them, followed by Ino, Choji, Hinata, Shino, and Team Gai.

"You mean I woke them up," Shikamaru corrected, lazily making his way back as well.

"I helped!" Kiba insisted. "I made sure no one attacked you while you were reviving them."

"Troublesome," Shikamaru muttered. "I should have just gone with my original plan of pretending to be unconscious. I might have even gotten a nap out of the deal…"

"Then why didn't you?" Kiba challenged. "Is it because you realize that you really want to help protect Konoha after all?"

"No," Shikamaru shook his head and yawned. "I just realized that since there three other people with me who could dispel genjutsu as well, one of them would have probably tried to wake me up. Probably Naruto, as he is the most troublesome."

"You all proved that you are all either ready to become Chuunin or on your way," Gai told them seriously. "Even though you are all only genin right now, we need you to help defend Konoha. Can you do that?"

The genin nodded determinedly.

"I've got to get back to my team," Sakura said apologetically. "I'm sure you guys can handle things up here and I'm also equally sure that they are going to do something stupid. Since God knows I'm somehow the responsible one, I need to make sure they don't get themselves killed."

Gai gave her a considering look before nodding. "Alright. Be careful getting down there. Now, the rest of you, listen up…"

----

"I must confess," Orochimaru said, "I would so rather be facing the Sandaime so I could kill him for his betrayal."

"His betrayal?" Minato couldn't believe it. "You were the one who was experimenting on not only Konoha citizens but children! Babies, even."

"I should have been Hokage," Orochimaru growled. "He took away my rightful position! I can't blame Jiraiya, I suppose, for wanting his student to become Yondaime, that was his goal since before I met him. Tsunade, I might need later so I can't seek vengeance on her. You, though…if it weren't for you Sarutobi-sensei would have had no choice but to choose me!"

"And what then?" Minato shot back. "You would have destroyed us in your mad quest for power."

"Maybe, maybe not," Orochimaru said dismissively. " I didn't come here to talk about the past."

"Could have fooled me…" Kakashi muttered.

"I may not have the ideal battleground but I still don't want any interference. Now, my Sound Four, put up the barrier!" Orochimaru ordered.

Minato glanced reflexively around the Kage box only to see that the shinobi with Orochimaru lay on the floor unmoving.

"What…why aren't they putting up the barrier?" Orochimaru demanded.

"Itachi killed them ten minutes ago," Kakashi informed them, sounding bored. He would have helped, but the younger shinobi seemed to have it well under control and it seemed kind of poetic to have Itachi killing the ones who had, in another life, tempted Sasuke away from the relative safety of Konoha and towards training with the seriously disturbed Orochimaru and, eventually, ending up with the Akatsuki. Itachi had always been better at silent killing that he had, anyway. "Maybe if you were less caught up in your little grudge match, you might have noticed."

"It doesn't matter," Orochimaru decided finally. "I'll kill you either way."

Minato responded with the decidedly hostile Shuriken Kage Bunshin no Jutsu. One shuriken became dozens and were all flying straight towards Orochimaru. He couldn't possibly avoid them all.

Orochimaru clapped his hands together and asked, "Have you seen my Kuchiyose: Edo Tensei? It took ages to master, but I consider it well worth my time. It may have taken some sacrifices, but their uselessness failed me anyway and maybe now we can show Sarutobi-sensei just which one of us deserved the title of Yondaime more." A coffin sprang up in front of him.

"You know, just the fact that if Minato-sensei had lost he wouldn't be throwing an epic hissy fit and trying to kill everyone makes him a better candidate, even should you win this fight," Kakashi couldn't resist pointing out.

Orochimaru glared at him. "Nobody asked you."

"No, but if you're planning on asking the Sandaime he'll just tell you the same thing," Kakashi countered. "Albeit, he'll be a lot sadder and more disappointed than I am."

A second coffin sprung up and then a third but Minato quickly made a few hand signs. The first and third coffins creaked open while the second remained stationary.

"The Shodai's revival didn't work?" Orochimaru complained. "And I so wanted to see the Mokuton in action! I did sacrifice 59 infants for the chances, after all…Oh well, at least there is always the Nidaime and the Sandaime."

Sure enough, when the two functional coffins opened fully, they revealed Sarutobi Hiruzen and a man Minato recognized from his portrait to be Senju Tobirama.

"So you're the Yondaime," Tobirama said. "I may not know you, but I have faith in Hiruzen and if he chose you, you must be a worthy successor. Especially so when you consider the other candidate." He shot a disgusted look at Orochimaru.

Orochimaru snorted. "Please, like I need your approval."

"Well, you won't be getting mine either," Sarutobi informed him flatly. He turned to his successor. "It's been a long time, Minato. I am pleased to see you're doing so well, even if this isn't exactly the best of circumstances."

"I never expected to see you again," Minato confessed. "I'm sorry that I have to fight you, but Orochimaru is leaving me no choice."

"Do not blame yourself for doing what needs to be done," Sarutobi said gently. "That is what it means to be Hokage, after all. And I do hope that you've stopped blaming yourself for my death. The Kyuubi needed to be stopped and Konoha and Naruto needed you. I was an old man and it was time for me to step aside."

"Sandaime-sama…" Minato trailed off.

"Since I have you here and Orochimaru has yet to do anything to try and control you, can you answer a question for me?" Kakashi spoke up.

Sarutobi looked surprised. "Certainly, Kakashi. What do you wish to know?"

"Do you, in any way, blame me for your death?" Kakashi demanded.

"What? No, of course not," Sarutobi assured him. "If you hadn't told me of Minato's plan, it is true that he probably would have died in place of me but it was for the best and it was my decision."

"That's what I thought," Kakashi said triumphantly. "Could I maybe get that in writing, though?" He glanced at Orochimaru. "You don't mind, do you? It's kind of important."

"Be my guest," Orochimaru said, bemused. "I'm just going to have them kill you once you're finished, but by all means, assuage your guilt."

Kakashi's eye twitched as he pulled out his book. "I don't feel guilty no matter what they might say! Okay, Jiraiya signed the front cover so could you mention that you don't blame me on the back?"

"Maybe it's just because I've been dead for the past twelve years," Sarutobi said as he obligingly absolved Kakashi from blame, "but I just don't understand you people anymore…"

Chapter Text

"Thanks again for doing this," Kakashi said again. "Seriously, you've just saved me many an accusation of murder."

"That's quite alright," Sarutobi assured him. "And really, I don't think I want to know."

"If you two are quite done with that then it's time to move things along," Orochimaru announced. He took out two kunai that had seals attached to them and plunged one into the back of each of the former Hokage's head. "Feel free to resume your true appearance now."

"They look…cleaner," Minato noted. "But other than that, pretty much the same. What did you do?"

"The seal I put in them puts them directly under my control," Orochimaru bragged. "And the nice thing about this resurrection technique is it's a form of immortality. Until I stop powering them, they will continue to exist here no matter what you do. If you remove a limb, it will grow back. Every time you knock them down, they will simply get up again. You can't win."

"So you're saying we need to kill you first," Minato said flatly, staring hard at his former compatriot.

Orochimaru laughed. "As if you could. Dear Sarutobi-sensei and Nidaime-sama wouldn't let you get anywhere near me and even if you could manage it, I've seen you in action before. Do you really think I'd come here if I was going to be risking death?"

"Are you…" Kakashi trailed off incredulously before starting again. "Are you honestly telling us that if either of the two former Hokages had bothered to move instead of standing right in front of you and within kunai-plunging range, they might not have been taken over and we could have avoided all of this?"

"I suppose so," Orochimaru agreed. "Too bad for you they didn't."

"Itachi, Kakashi," Minato said in a low voice. "I want you two to go after Orochimaru. I can handle myself against my predecessors and if anything goes wrong then killing Orochimaru should destroy Sandaime-sama and Nidaime-sama's incarnations. We don't know what steps Orochimaru has taken to try and achieve immortality so if necessary, Itachi, use the Sakenagi no Tachi."

Itachi nodded. "Understood, Hokage-sama."

"Don't die, Minato-sensei," Kakashi said, knowing very well that this battle had cost Sarutobi his life, although he wasn't clear on the details. Something about sealing Orochimaru's arms?

"Wouldn't dream of it," Minato promised. "I will not fall to the likes of Orochimaru."

"Oh, so the two of you are going to be facing me now?" Orochimaru asked, arching an eyebrow at them. "I had SO wanted to watch Minato die…but I suppose that this will at least give me something to do while he realizes that resistance is futile and abandons all hope of surviving. If I hurry, I might even get done in time to watch Yondaime-sama's death."

"You're confident," Itachi said quietly.

"Immortal people often are," Orochimaru replied. "And I mean real immortality, not those parlor tricks of Hidan's. Why we're considering letting him join is beyond me…it would be so much easier if Kakuzu just learned some self-control…"

"If you're immortal and not even slightly worried about Minato-sensei kicking your ass, then why did you feel the need to summon two dead people to stand between the two of you?" Kakashi asked innocently.

"I don't need to explain myself to the likes of you, Kakashi," Orochimaru sniffed. "And you… I know who you are."

"Indeed?" Itachi asked rhetorically.

"You're the one who pinned your massacre on me!" Orochimaru exclaimed.

"My massacre?" Itachi repeated. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."

"I wasn't anywhere near Konoha that night and yet somehow everyone blames me for wiping out such an 'honorable and distinguished' clan," Orochimaru hissed. "The acclaim was appreciated, but being held responsible for wiping out such a powerful bloodline? I've come to feel it is not worth it."

"I fail to see how that is my fault," Itachi told him. "Anko was the one who identified you that night."

"I'm sure she was," Orochimaru said patronizingly. "That girl never did like me after I left…I think she might have abandonment issues. Still, I wonder what dear little Sasuke-kun would have to say about all of this. He was such a delight when we met in the forest."

Itachi's eyes flashed. "I will kill you before allowing you anywhere near my brother again."

"You can try," Orochimaru invited. "The Sharingan might be a good deal rarer than it once was but that only adds to its value. I've always wanted an Uchiha, you know, and now it seems fate has seen fit to give me one."

"You mean…like a pet?" Kakashi felt compelled to ask. "Or do you mean more like a sex toy?"

Itachi eyed his fellow Konoha shinobi reproachfully but said nothing. At least not now, although after the invasion was over might very well be a different story.

"What? No!" Orochimaru insisted. "I am not a pedophile! I just want his body!"

There was an awkward silence.

"Are you sure you're not a pedophile?" Kakashi asked finally. "Because from the sounds of it-"

"YES, I'm sure," Orochimaru cut him off. He opened his mouth wide and a snake extended from it.

"Oh, that is just gross," Kakashi exclaimed. "What, did you eat a snake now? Does one live in your intestines? On second thought, I really don't want to know."

"If you are going to complain every time Orochimaru does something disturbing, this is going to take twice as long," Itachi told him. "And once this battle is over, we will still be needed to deal with the rest of the invasion."

"I know, I know, it's just…" Kakashi trailed off as the snake's mouth opened to reveal a blade that shot forward in his general direction. Once the sword was gone, the snake receded back into Orochimaru's throat and he shut his mouth. Jumping out of the way, Kakashi continued, "If he was just going to use the snake to store the sword why even bother with that? Is he just trying to be creepy. I know you can swallow swords without the aid of reptiles because God knows I've seen Anko do it often enough…"

Kakashi felt that even now, he still wasn't a match for Orochimaru. Minato definitely was, but he was a little busy at the moment. Even Sasuke had only managed to beat him because the snake sannin was already suffering the effects of his borrowed body's breakdown, even if Sasuke usually denied it. Not that that really reflected badly on either of them – except Sasuke really should have put himself in a position where he was so close to being assimilated – since Orochimaru had proven capable of standing up to Naruto when he was using four tails. Really, the only person he knew of to defeat Orochimaru in anything resembling a fair fight was Itachi and he'd pulled it off at thirteen or so and thus Kakashi was perfectly happy to leave the snake fighting to the Uchiha and deal with the legendary sword himself.

Unfortunately, said legendary sword had this annoying tendency to be able to slice through anything. Well, anything except multi-tailed Jinchuriki chakra and Kakashi was sadly bereft of that. Fortunately for him, tossing random kunai, exploding tags, or even jutsus at the Kusanagi no Tsurugi: Kū no Tachi was enough to slow it down as even though he was just essentially stalling, doing nothing but running away would be really embarrassing. It might even convince Orochimaru not to waste his precious sword on him and recall it, meaning he would be no help whatsoever.

Kakashi stopped suddenly – and almost got impaled as a result – when he saw a…giant flaming humanoid spirit surrounding Itachi. That must be Susanoo.

Orochimaru paused for a second to whisper in wonderment, "The Sakenagi no Tachi. All these years and you've had it. I knew there was a reason I hated you…"

Almost before Orochimaru finished his awed declaration, Susanoo stabbed him with the Kusanagi's perfect counter. Almost immediately, Orochimaru seemed to melt into the sword. Without Orochimaru to guide it, the Kusanagi dropped lifeless to the ground.

"I've always wanted an unbreakable sword," Kakashi mused, picking it up. "Or at least I have since that thing started chasing me. Sasuke will probably steal it from me first chance he gets, though. After all, the fact that he kept calling his sword Kusanagi kind of suggests an…active interest on his part."

Itachi quickly dropped the Susanoo and he and Kakashi turned as one to see how Minato was faring.

Minato was standing back and watching as two clones of his held the Sandaime and Nidaime in place. An arm was extending out of each clone's abdomen and into that of each former Hokage's.

"Sorry, Yondaime-sama," the Nidaime apologized, a wry smile on his face. "We've caused a lot of trouble for you."

"You're doing a great job, Minato," Sarutobi said gently. "I knew made the right choice."

"I'm sorry," the Minato watching the exchange told them. "Rest in peace."

With that, the arms pulled the souls out of the two dead leaders and they collapsed onto the ground in a pile of ash and former sound shinobi.

"Such disregard for the lives of his followers," Minato said ruefully, shaking his head.

"Hey, if Sandaime-sama's soul was basically eaten by a shinigami and then Orochimaru brought him here…does that mean Orochimaru inadvertently essentially saved him from eternal suffering?" Kakashi wondered.

Minato cocked his head. "I don't know…that would incredibly ironic if it were the case. So Orochimaru's gone?"

Itachi nodded. "Yes, Hokage-sama. I sealed him with the Sakenagi no Tachi. I was unaware you could use clones for sealing of that sort."

Minato nodded. "For people, yes, if you have enough chakra. For Bijuu…they are too powerful for that and need a living sacrifice or we all could have been saved a lot of trouble."

"I should have known that Orochimaru would prove useless," a cold voice remarked. Kakashi spun around to see Madara, looking very much like his avatar 'Tobi', causally leaning against a wall. "But still, his fanatically devoted cannon fodder helped make this invasion possible."

"Madara," Itachi said finally.

"Why hello, Itachi," Madara greeted cordially. "It's been years, hasn't it? I don't believe I've seen you since the massacre. You forgot about our deal, didn't you? I help you brutally murder every one of our brethren save little Sasuke and you join me at Akatsuki."

"Things changed," Itachi replied. "Orochimaru was blamed and I did not have to leave."

"Be that as it may, Itachi, a promise is a promise and I really would have thought you'd have been raised to respect that," Madara mock-lectured. "Still, it's not too late to join me."

"I will never betray Konoha," Itachi declared.

"We shall see," Madara said, sounding amused.

"Kakashi," Minato said quietly. "Leave this to Itachi and I."

"What?" Kakashi protested. "But-"

"Go find Naruto," Minato ordered. "Sakura and Sasuke are probably with him and knowing them, they're probably getting in over their heads. Keep my son alive, Kakashi."

Reluctantly, Kakashi nodded. "Don't make him an orphan, Minato-sensei. And God knows the last thing Sasuke needs is to lose more family members."

----

"You know, for an invasion this is really kind of boring," Sasuke complained as he cut down yet another Oto shinobi. They had had to face a few Suna Shinobi earlier in the fight but the message that Orochimaru had betrayed them and killed their Kazekage seemed to have spread through Suna's ranks at this point.

"It may be a little monotonous since we're just facing grunts," Sakura acknowledged. "But you can't honestly say you're bored."

"Did I mention that when That Man was trying to see how close I was to be ready to get possessed by him he had me fight one hundred Oto shinobi and I took them down without killing any of them or getting a scratch on me?" Sasuke asked.

"That's great, Sasuke!" Naruto beamed.

Sasuke shrugged. "Not really. I mean, these were maybe Chuunin-level shinobi I'm talking about. Do you remember when Shikamaru made Chuunin? Granted, he was brilliant, but if you stayed out of range of his shadow he was not much of a challenge back then."

"He did pretend to be unconscious so he wouldn't have to do anything during the invasion," Sakura conceded.

"True," Naruto admitted. "But actually, I was talking about how great it was that you didn't kill them."

"Even if they were Oto shinobi and thus evil by default?" Sasuke asked innocently.

Naruto hesitated before nodding firmly. "Even then."

"You know, from what I can tell Naruto, most of the Oto shinobi were just as messed up as Sasuke," Sakura pointed out. "So when I see Orochimaru I think of…well, a lot of things, really, none of them positive. Bu one of those things is a pied piper. Most of those children didn't really have caring friends and a great support network should they have ever chosen to utilize it like Sasuke, but other than that it was pretty much the same situation."

Naruto groaned. "Don't make me start seeing them as victims, Sakura! You're going to make me compelled to save them all!"

Sasuke snorted. "As long as Orochimaru's alive for them to obsess over, you can't 'save' any of them."

"Then it's a good thing Itachi just killed Orochimaru, huh?" Kakashi asked, Shunshining over to them.

"Um, I know Itachi's insanely awesome and all," Naruto said, confused, "but I thought Orochimaru was kind of, you know, immortal."

"By 'killed' I meant 'sealed away for all eternity'," Kakashi amended. "Much better than when Sasuke tried to seal Orochimaru inside of him. God knows what would have happened had Itachi not been there when he broke loose."

"I had it under control," Sasuke claimed. "So Orochimaru's gone, huh? I would have liked to have been there, but I suppose I already beat him and the Susanoo is the most effective way of getting rid of him. He did use the Susanoo, didn't he?"

"He did," Kakashi agreed. "And right now…he and your father, Naruto, are facing Madara."

Sasuke's head snapped up. "Where?"

"You're NOT going off on another suicide quest," Sakura said firmly. "Let the two insanely powerful shinobi deal with it. You'd just get in the way."

"I promised I wouldn't go looking for him but he's here NOW," Sasuke burst out. "And he's fighting my brother! You can't expect me to do nothing!"

"I can and I do," Kakashi said seriously. "Either of them would kill me if I let you guys anywhere near that fight."

"Killing him once was not enough," Sasuke growled.

"Madara did do everything in his power to get your clan wiped out," Naruto agreed. "But you aren't the only one who suffered because of that decision. Let Itachi get vengeance this time, okay?"

"But he doesn't even want vengeance!" Sasuke protested.

"Him helping to kill Madara would still be avenging the Uchiha," Naruto insisted.

Sasuke thought about it for a long, terrible moment where his teammates were left wondering if they'd need to incapacitate him so he'd stay out of a fight he was nowhere near ready for and what to do with him if they did.

Finally, Sasuke spoke. "Fine. But I'm going to need to kill something in the next two minutes or so help me…"

There was a dark chuckle a few feet away. "Now isn't that a man after my own heart."

A quick glance showed the speaker was Kisame. Sasori and Kakuzu were standing with him.

So the Akatsuki was there after all.

Chapter Text

"What are you guys doing here?" Naruto demanded. "I didn't think village-destroying was your style."

"It's not," Kisame agreed. "But nothing wrong with having a little fun while on a Jinchuriki hunt, is there?"

"Our sources say that you are one of our targets, little boy," Sasori said from inside his puppet armor. "Namikaze Naruto, host of the Kyuubi, correct?"

Naruto glared defiantly. "Just try it."

"Oh, we intend to," Kisame chuckled. He stabbed the ground suddenly with his sword. "I hate snakes," he said by way of explanation. "They remind me of that snake."

"What is this?" Gai asked, appearing on the scene by way of kicking Kisame in the head. "Three members of the fiendish and most unyouthful group that Orochimaru belonged to are ganging up on my most hip rival and his youthful students?"

"I'm not your rival," Kakashi insisted but, as per usual, Gai seemed not to hear him. Excessive youth really did seem to give you selective hearing.

Kisame climbed to his feet. "And what the hell was that? You come out of nowhere and kick me in the head! Isn't that 'unyouthful' or whatever?"

"No," Gai said cheerfully. "That's my way of saying that I will youthfully take you on to give my comrades a better chance."

"Be careful," Sakura cautioned. "His sword absorbs chakra."

Gai instantly reverted to his trademark good guy pose. "Then it is a good thing that I intend to get through this fight using only taijutsu. You see, Lee? This is a perfect example of when it is not only possible but in fact comes in handy to not rely on chakra when you fight."

"Yes, Gai-sensei!" Lee cheered from some trees a good way off. The other genin who were left with Gai were standing with him.

"And stay out of the way," Gai added. "It would be most unyouthful if one of you were to be injured in this most youthful fight."

"Fine by me," Shikamaru agreed, sounding almost pleased. "This whole invasion is far too troublesome for my tastes anyway."

"Witnesses," Sasuke muttered, looking murderous. "Of all the times for us to have witnesses, they pick NOW to show up."

"At least we don't have to fight Kisame," whispered Naruto. "I think I only fought Kisame once and got my ass kicked while Gai defeated him twice. Besides, what do you want him to do? Take his fight and his charges and out of hearing range?"

"That would be nice," Sasuke nodded. "Yes, that is exactly what I want."

"That's really too bad," Sakura told them flatly. "You couldn't actually provide a decent excuse and I refuse to let you sink low enough as to tell him this spot is unyouthful."

"Alright," Kakashi said loudly to get their attention before dropping his voice back down to 'let's not let our enemies hear everything we're doing' levels. "Naruto and I have fought Kakuzu before and Sakura has bested Sasori. I know you had Chiyo with you last time and, as his grandmother, was bound to be a great help but at least you'll have Sasuke with you."

"Can I trade him for Naruto?" Sakura asked immediately.

"What? Why would you want Naruto?" Sasuke demanded indignantly.

"Sorry, Sakura," Kakashi apologized. "We kind of need Naruto against Kakuzu because of his upgraded Rasengan."

"Not to mention my debilitating fear of puppets," Naruto chimed in. "Don't tell me you've forgotten about that already?"

"Then can I switch?" Sakura changed tactics. "Or, you know, I might be able to do this alone-"

"Oh come on," Sasuke said impatiently, rolling his eyes as he dragged his teammate off to face Sasori.

"So you two are my opponents, huh?" Kakuzu asked rhetorically. "Hatake Kakashi – I haven't checked but I'm willing to bet that you have a HUGE bounty on you. I look forward to collecting it. And you, Jinchuriki…Try not to make me kill you because otherwise our leader will be most displeased."

"You, Sasori, Kisame, Orochimaru, 'Tobi'…" Kakashi listed off. "That's at least five members of the Akatsuki here today. You can't possibly all be here for Naruto."

"No," Kakuzu admitted. "Tobi really wanted to come and there was no persuading him otherwise."

"God, I hate him!" Kisame called over, looking up from his valiant attempt to behead Gai. "It's like he doesn't have an off switch, I swear….why couldn't I have a quiet partner? I shouldn't be the stoic all the time; it's not natural."

"It's because you are so unyouthful," Gai explained as landed a well-placed kick on Kisame's chest and sent him flying.

"And this whole thing was Orochimaru's doing so Sasori had to come," Kakuzu admitted. "And I am here because there was a rumor that Shukaku is here as well. Know anything about that?"

"Not a thing," Naruto lied. "And trust me, I'd know. I have Jinchuriki senses."

"If you all seem to have partners, where's yours?" Kakashi asked, looking around warily for Hidan.

Kakuzu shrugged. "Damn kid wouldn't shut up so I killed him about twenty minutes ago. Let me tell you, Tobi is so lucky he our Leader won't let him be alone with me under any circumstances…" He stiffened suddenly as a Raikiri-infused punch went straight through him. "What…?"

"Yeah, I am that awesome," Kakashi said triumphantly before dispersing. The real Kakashi was standing behind Kakuzu with his arm through the ancient missing-nin's chest.

Kakuzu waited until Kakashi removed his invasive appendage before saying with a smirk, "You really think it will be that easy to defeat me? I wouldn't have made it nearly this long if it were."

"Maybe that isn't enough to kill you," Kakashi agreed. "But if landing really-should-be lethal blows is that easy this won't take long."

"You won't get the element of surprise twice, Kakashi," Kakuzu promised. He ripped off his Akatsuki cloak and unceremoniously threw it to the side. "You may have broken one of my masks, but I've still got three more just waiting to tear you apart." He closed his eyes and groaned.

"Having trouble over there?" Naruto asked politely.

"No, I think I'm doing fine," Kakuzu replied. "You won't be, though." At that, four hairy mask-creatures burst forth from his back and landed behind him. The one that Kakashi had hit promptly fell over and died, but the other three looked quite impressive, if a little gross.

One of the masks opened its mouth and a beam of blue at Naruto, who quickly jumped out of the way. A second mask fired yellow at Naruto the moment he landed and it hit him head-on.

"Ow," he complained. "Hey, what's with the extra hating on me? Kakashi's the one who broke your stupid mask monster."

"You can take more damage than I can," Kakashi pointed out.

"That doesn't mean I want to," Naruto returned.

The red mask took that moment to fire a burst of red a few feet in front of it. The red, of course, turned into fire that raged quickly in Kakashi's direction.

"Thank you SO much for that, Naruto," Kakashi said dryly as he rushed to escape the flames.

"Hey, don't look at me! Kakuzu did it!" Naruto defended.

"You gave him the idea," Kakashi accused.

Naruto crossed his arms. "Oh please, he's a missing-nin that's practically as old as Madara. I'm sure he's picked up a few good killing people idea on his own. You know, before I was even born."

"We still have to destroy four more hearts before we kill him," Kakashi reminded Naruto. "I'll do what I can with Raikiri and then you need to handle the rest but you can't slip into sage mode so be careful."

"I will," Naruto nodded. "But why do we have to take out his hearts? Why can't we just destroy his lungs or his brain or something? I'm pretty sure he only has one brain."

"…That might actually be a plan," Kakashi said, sounding surprised. He glanced quickly at Kakuzu. "I don't think he heard us, which is good or that would never work. Since you've just been sitting here watching and are far better with Kage Buushin than I could ever hope to be, I'll continue playing by his rules and you try and use a clone or two to sneak up behind him and blow his head off."

"Okay," Naruto nodded. "It would be really helpful if you could make sure that he was looking in the opposite direction so he can't see what I'm doing in his peripheral vision and I'll make sure to mask my clones' chakra."

"Make sure you aim for the brain," Kakashi ordered. "He may have more lungs on him and you're living proof that a destroyed lung is not necessarily a death sentence. And you have to DESTROY the brain, not just remove his head because if the stitches on his neck are any indication, he's been there, done that, and came through just fine."

Kakashi Shunshined over to behind Kakuzu. "Don't tell me you've fallen asleep on me. Seriously, I know you're old and full of old pride or whatever, but when you can't stay awake for your matches and those matches don't involve Shikamaru, it's really time to consider retirement."

Kakuzu sensibly spun around to avoid having yet another heart destroyed. "I'm torn between tearing out your still-beating heart to replace the one you stole and just killing you now. Do you have any preferences?"

Kakashi shrugged. "Not really, but it doesn't matter because you're not going to kill me."

"Are you so certain?" Kakuzu taunted as another tower of fire came hurtling Kakashi's way.

Kakashi jumped back and used a Suiton Siijinheki to try and calm the flames. "No go," he murmured. "Must have been combined with wind."

Thread shot out of Kakuzu's arm and wrapped tightly around Kakashi's leg, pulling him to the ground.

"Well, this is awkward," Kakashi noted as Kakuzu stood over him.

"I've decided," Kakuzu announced. "Your heart is mine now." He stopped suddenly when he felt two hands grab the back of his head.

Naruto released a Senjutsu: Rasenrengan at point-blank range.

The three remaining mask-monsters jerked and fell over unmoving and Kakuzu himself was missing the top third of his body.

"I think I got him," Naruto said with a smirk.

"Damnit, Naruto! I was right there," Kakashi complained as he pushed himself to his feet. "Seriously, I could have been killed. And what did I tell you about using Sage Mode?"

"Sorry," Naruto apologized, allowing himself to exit Sage Mode. "But I wasn't sure the Rasengan would be powerful enough and the Fūton: Rasenshuriken is too loud; he would have been on the alert and I may not have been able to hit him."

"But now people will be able to sense you used that chakra and if nobody else Jiraiya is going to realize what that means and have a lot of questions for you about how you managed that without going to see the toads," Kakashi pointed out.

"You know, considering I just saved your life, you could be a little more grateful," Naruto sniffed.

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "I could have handled it. And now we have to deal with telling people about us."

"So?" Naruto shrugged. "We probably should have from the beginning."

Kakashi sighed. "You and the others can claim you were taking your cues from me but I have to explain why I couldn't be bothered explaining this for the last fifteen years."

"Sucks to be you," Naruto said flippantly.

"Your empathy is touching," Kakashi said sarcastically.

"I do try," Naruto said modestly. "But really, how bad could it be? Who do we have to tell?"

"Jiraiya, of course," Kakashi said. "Because he'll be able to tell something's wrong from the sage chakra. He'll insist on telling Minato, so that's two."

"Who are we telling what?" Sakura asked, bounding over to him followed by Sasuke.

"Naruto used sage chakra so now we have to come clean to, at the very least, Jiraiya and Minato," Kakashi summarized.

"You're an idiot," Sasuke said bluntly. "I thought you weren't going to use that."

"I wasn't," Naruto admitted. "But it seemed like the most efficient plan."

"But now we've got to tell people," Sakura grumbled, running a hand through her hair. "Definitely not my parents. They'll never understand and they'll be happier not knowing. I mean, coming back because the world ended or Naruto or Sasuke died might freak them out but they could understand it. Coming back pretty much for the hell of it…not so much."

"It wasn't just for the hell of it," Kakashi protested. "My life is about a thousand times better now than it was at this same point in the other timeline."

"Mine too," Naruto was quick to agree.

"And mine," Sasuke added.

"Well I was fine with the way things turned out," Sakura informed them. "So I couldn't get them to understand."

"We COULD lie and say that the world did end," Kakashi suggested."That seems more responsible of us."

"But then there's always the problem of 'why didn't we tell anyone if the situation was so dire'," Sasuke pointed out.

"And I don't like lying to my dad," Naruto confessed. "And the Hokage to boot."

"Fine," Kakashi conceded. "We'll tell Minato and Jiraiya the truth. Anyone else?"

"It wouldn't feel right not telling Tsunade-sensei," Sakura offered. "I mean, she was our Hokage when we left, ,after all, and she's on the Council."

"Any objections?" Kakashi asked. When there were none, he continued, "Okay, that's three people so far. Anyone else?"

"We can't tell Obito and Rin," Sasuke declared. "They probably wouldn't appreciate hearing that they just died ignobly a long ago and there's no way they'd be able to handle that the Hokage had our family killed via Itachi. But speaking of…" he sighed. "He's always worrying I'm going to find out the truth and hate him. Even though I really don't want to, I should probably let him know that I forgive him and I can't do that if he doesn't know."

"And I suppose that if I'm going to be spending the rest of my life with her, Anko should know, too," Kakashi decided reluctantly. "So…that's Jiraiya, Minato, Tsunade, Itachi, and Anko. Five people. That sound about right?"

"Yeah, that should be good," Naruto agreed.

"You do realized that if this inconveniences us in the slightest we're going to kill you, right?" Sakura asked.

"You can try," Naruto told her. "But I have an army of Kage Buushin and a collection of friends at my disposal so you all can just bring it on."

Chapter Text

"So you both have finished your most youthful matches?" Gai asked, approaching them, followed by his protégé. "Did either of you capture your opponent or were you forced to kill them?"

"Kakuzu was an incredibly dangerous foe with a penchant for stealing hearts so we decided it was best to simply kill him," Kakashi replied.

"Not to mention it's kind of hard NOT to kill someone with the Rasengan," Naruto added. "And if we were to try, it would have involved a lot of unnecessary attacks on poor, disturbing mask creatures."

"We might have tried to capture Sasori alive," Sakura said. "But it was difficult to get near him due to his use of highly potent poison and so Sasuke eventually just used Amaterasu on him."

"To be fair," Sasuke defended. "He was apparently an actual puppet and I had no way of knowing that."

"Oh, was he?" Naruto asked, shivering. "Good thing I fought mask guy instead then. The LAST thing this world needs is sentient puppets." He paused. "Well, the second last thing. The actual last thing we need is more revenge-obsessed morons, but that goes without saying, right Sasuke?"

"I quite agree," Sasuke said with a nod. "Morons ruin everything."

"I was more talking about the 'vengeance' part," Naruto corrected.

"You know, given that you were using the freaking Amaterasu, I think it would have burned him alive even if he hadn't turned himself into a puppet," Sakura pointed out.

"But he wasn't so I didn't," Sasuke countered.

"How did your fight go, Gai?" Kakashi inquired, hoping to forestall an argument about semantics.

"It was most youthful," Gai answered, as if it could have possibly been anything else. "He seemed a little unsure of what to do since his sword could not absorb the chakra I was not using and he ended up summoning a lake in the middle of our battle, but my youthfulness carried the day and I knocked him out and tied him up."

"I have never been so inspired before in my life!" Lee exclaimed. "I now see beyond a shadow of a doubt that working without chakra is not only possible, but can be an advantage!"

"It all depends on how hard you work," Gai agreed. "And I know you, my adorable student, will work harder than anyone!" Turning back to Kakashi, he continued, "Since the other two are dead, Hokage-sama can have Kisame interrogated after this is all over."

"Good plan," Kakashi replied. "Now, let's go finish ridding the Village of Oto shinobi."

----

"Naruto!" Minato called upon seeing his son. The invasion was over and the ninja that were not too gravely injured were meeting back in the ruins of the stadium.

"Hey, dad," Naruto greeted with a grin. The rest of his team was standing back a few feet, trying to pretend they weren't eavesdropping. "Did you kill the bad guy?"

"I did," Minato acknowledged. "And unlike most cases, this time I can objectively and diplomatically declare him the bad guy."

"Yeah, Sasuke really wanted to go fight him once Kakashi said you were facing Madara…who apparently hated his family and abandoned them a long time ago. We wouldn't let him, though," Naruto informed him, hoping his father wouldn't ask about his hesitation.

Minato, who had been glaring at Kakashi for even mentioning that much, relaxed. "That's good. He was a very dangerous opponent and Sasuke would have just ended up getting hurt."

"We had our own problems to deal with anyway," Naruto continued. "Gai was fighting a sushi man, Sasuke and Sakura took out a possessed puppet, and Kakashi and I killed some mask guy who said he fought the Shodai. Apparently they were Orochimaru's friends that secretly hated him."

"What?" Minato exclaimed, bending down to check his son for injuries. "You're not hurt, are you?"

Naruto dutifully withstood the examination with barely an exasperated eye roll. "No, I'm fine. Kakashi made me stay back while he did all the fighting because apparently it was 'dangerous' and he 'didn't want to get lectured to death about the unyouthfulness of irresponsibility' or some other such nonsense. That was okay, though, because then I got to sneak up behind him and blow his head off with my version of the Rasengan."

Minato looked a little alarmed at that. "You literally blew someone's head off? You're only a genin!"

"Well, technically it was more like the upper third of his body, but it's really the same thing," Naruto admitted. "And hopefully my genin status will be short-lived or else I swear to God I'm running away to Suna."

"Are you…threatening me to get a promotion?" Minato asked incredulously and a bit worriedly. "Because you know the last thing I want to do is have you killed but Genin can't really go wandering off by themselves."

"It's not a threat," Naruto assured his father. "It's just the only appropriate response to the prospect of a year of Springtime of Youth. Sakura and Sasuke would probably agree to come with me if it comes to that. Sasuke's always more than up for a change of scenery anyway."

"We'll deal with you lack of promotion if it comes to that," Minato promised. "In the meantime, don't even think of leaving. And are Sasuke and Sakura okay?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, they're fine. In fact," Naruto confided. "I heard Sasuke complimenting Sakura on her one-hit puppet destroying. I should probably say something about that, too, because the two of them really did the world a favor tonight."

Minato sighed and shook his head. "We have got to look into getting you therapy for this puppet issue of yours. Or maybe Obito could talk to you about it."

"Are you sure that's necessary?" Naruto asked, really not looking forward to the prospect of seeing a therapist now that his problems had mostly resolved themselves. "I mean, after what happened with that Sasori guy, I feel totally vindicated."

"We'll talk about it later. For now, I've got to have a quick meeting with the Daimyo and the other judges before they leave to see who gets promoted. Hopefully even though we didn't get a chance to finish the exam, we got through enough that there will beat least one brand-new Chuunin. After that, I've got to organize the rebuilding, so you may be off the hook for awhile," Minato told him.

"Oh, Minato-sensei," Kakashi said, giving up any pretence of not having been paying attention to their conversation. "I still have that recommendation sheet Orochimaru gave me earlier. Do you want that?"

Minato blinked. "I'd actually completely forgotten about that. I can see why he'd give it to you before Sasuke and Gaara's match, but why would he even write one out if he was trying to kill me?"

"Maybe it was a contingency plan in case he lost. Considering he had to sit through all those matches, maybe he wanted to get at least something out of it," Kakashi suggested. "So do you want it or should I just keep using it as a bookmark?"

"We may as well take it into consideration given that while he was not actually Kazekage, he was the leader of Oto, which has been recognized as legitimate enough to send candidates," Minato decided. "And honestly, I'm a little curious as to who he thought should make the cut."

"Is there anything else, Minato-sensei?" Kakashi asked.

"Just one more thing…do you have any reservations about your Team getting promoted?" Minato inquired. "I understand if you have any reservations about telling me you think your students are insane in front of them, so if you want to let me know later that's fine."

"On the contrary," Kakashi lied through his teeth. "I have never before met such happy, well-adjusted individuals."

----

"Thank you SO much for that Naruto," Kakashi said sarcastically once Team Seven was alone. They had, naturally, decided to forgo helping to deal with the aftermath of the invasion until they got a chance to compare notes and were sitting in the middle of their old training ground, which was mercifully unmarred by the invasion.

"Don't mention it; anyone who's not a revenge-obsessed idiot would have done the same," Naruto replied automatically. "But…what did I do?"

"You told your father that I told you about Madara!" Kakashi reminded him.

"Yeah, that was kind of a bad idea," Sakura agreed. "I kept waiting for you to shut up but I couldn't do anything as I was too far away to hit you and I couldn't say anything because I couldn't explain and don't want them to think we're not fit to pass the MSR."

"We're probably not," Sasuke spoke up.

"Don't say that!" Naruto cried out. "We'll pass it and we'll avoid Gai's training, believe it!"

"Do you?" Sasuke challenged.

"Well, you see…" Naruto hedged.

"If he did he probably wouldn't have threatened to run away from home," Sakura pointed out.

"Do you think that will negatively affect us?" Sasuke wondered aloud.

"I didn't THREATEN it, exactly," Naruto corrected. "And I hope not. It's kind of meant to have the opposite effect."

"And it's a hyperbole, right Naruto?" Kakashi asked.

Silence.

"RIGHT, Naruto?" Kakashi repeated, louder this time. "Because if you leave and your father kills me, I am SO going to plague your dreams with visions of me eating ramen and not letting you have any for the rest of your life. I'm already not on his good side for telling you about Madara."

"You can always come with me," Naruto offered with a weak smile. "And I forgot we weren't supposed to know about him yet. I kind of panicked when I realized that even if you did mention him, Sasuke would need a reason to want to go looking for him."

"Especially since I don't have a reputation of wanting to complete my family massacre like I had last time," Sasuke agreed. "And I fully acknowledge that there are better times and places than a high-profile fight in the middle of an invasion for a family reunion."

"So what even happened? You said something about Itachi sealing Orochimaru away forever?" Sakura asked curiously.

"Oh, right. Well, Orochimaru gave me a list of names for who he thought should make Chuunin-" Kakashi began.

"Are we on there?" Naruto interrupted.

Kakashi shot him an annoyed look. "I don't know; I didn't read it."

"Well you should have," Naruto muttered, crossing his arms.

"Given I managed to beat him, I probably made the list," Sasuke declared confidently.

Sakura rolled her eyes. "Given that he's in love with you, you probably ARE the list."

"Careful, Sakura," Sasuke cautioned. "You sound jealous."

"Of you?" Sakura made a face. "I'd rather date Ino!"

"That…wasn't quite what I meant," Sasuke replied.

"Although it IS a nice thought," Naruto said dreamily.

"The only reason I'm not smacking you for being a pervert is because I was the one brought it up," Sakura informed him matter-of-factly.

"Duly noted," Naruto gulped.

"If you guys are quite finished," Kakashi said quickly, "then I could tell you how Orochimaru was indeed pretending to be the Kazekage and summoned Minato-sensei's predecessors. Fortunately, Minato-sensei managed to do something to stop the Shodai from returning but he still had to face the Nidaime and the Sandaime-"

"Who you killed," Team Seven intoned together.

Kakashi's eyes crinkled excitedly and he whipped out his book. "I thought you might say that, which is why I brought this."

"You brought porn to show us that you didn't kill the Sandaime?" Sakura was decidedly unimpressed.

"No," Kakashi shook his head and flipped to the back cover. "Read this."

" 'I, Sarutobi Hiruzen, being of relatively sound mind though a makeshift body, do hereby absolve Hatake Kakashi from all possible guilt in my death. Without his information, I may still be among the living but my successor would not be and I made my own decisions. Although I still don't see why this is so important that we need to do this now'," Sakura dutifully read. "And for that matter, neither do I."

"You did WHAT?" Naruto couldn't believe it. "And Orochimaru just let you do it?"

Kakashi shrugged. "He seemed confused but pretty apathetic about the whole thing, actually."

"You realize that this changes nothing, right?" Sasuke asked him seriously.

"What?" Kakashi cried out. "Come on, I got a dead guy to give written proof that he doesn't hold me accountable! What more do you want?"

"The Sandaime was brought back to life by the Orochimaru's Kuchiyose: Edo Tensei, which could very well have unintentional side-effects like skewed judgment," Sasuke answered. "And even if it doesn't, you could have forged his handwriting. Or maybe he's just trying to appease your guilt. Or it could be that since he doesn't actually know that you're from a different timeline where he died today, he doesn't appreciate just how much his death is your entire fault."

"All of those are excellent suggestions, Sasuke," Sakura smiled. "I think I'm partial to the last one."

Naruto nodded. "Me too."

Kakashi hung his head. "I pull off the impossible and it's still not good enough for you people!"

"It's your own damn fault for telling us that you're the reason my father is alive and Old Man Hokage isn't," Naruto told him unsympathetically. "If you had said something about how either Obito or Rin did something then things would be different."

"Then you wouldn't keep accusing me of killing him?" Kakashi asked hopefully.

"Oh no, we still would," Sakura corrected. "But it would be inadvertent then. Less murder and more manslaughter, if you will."

"I hate you all," Kakashi said flatly.

"Yes, yes," Naruto said impatiently. "We're horrible people for holding you accountable for your actions."

"I know," Kakashi nodded. "Especially since you never hold anything Sasuke does against him."

"That's because Uchiha are immune from the consequences of their actions," Sasuke explained. "Unless, of course, the person dealing the consequences is another Uchiha."

"Ain't that the truth," Sakura muttered. "But seriously, get on with it."

"Alright," Kakashi agreed reluctantly. "Minato took on the Nidaime and Sandaime and managed to seal them away via shadow clone sacrificing while Itachi used Susanoo on Orochimaru and I…well, I was distracting Orochimaru's sword."

"You mean THIS sword?" Sasuke asked, holding up Orochimaru's Kusanagi Sword.

"What the…when did you take that?" Kakashi demanded.

"Awhile ago," Sasuke replied unhelpfully.

"WHY?" Kakashi pressed.

Sasuke shrugged. "Suigetsu got me into the habit of sword collecting," he said by way of explanation. "Before, well…Anyway, I also took Kisame's, but that's rather bulky and he may want it back at some point, so I'm hiding it in a storage scroll until everything's settled with him."

Naruto started laughing. "You had to fight against a sword…"

"Hey, you got your ass kicked by Kisame's," Kakashi shot back.

"So?" Naruto didn't see the relevance. "It stole chakra."

"You also got your ass kicked by Orochimaru while you were transformed up to four tails," Kakashi continued.

Naruto made a face. "Point."

"After that, Madara showed up, mentioned how he was ticked Itachi never joined Akatsuki like he promised, and Minato-sensei sent me after you guys. He seemed to think you'd do something stupid," Kakashi concluded.

"Like take on members of the Akatsuki?" Sakura queried.

"I think that would most definitely fit the bill," Kakashi agreed. "Although in our defense…they found us, not the other way around."

"AND we won," Naruto felt compelled to add. "That's very important."

"Of course we did," Sasuke said matter-of-factly. "I always win."

"I don't know, Sasuke," Naruto said slowly. "I seem to recall you losing to a man who was legally blind, literally drowning in his own blood, AND trying to let you win."

Sasuke glared at him. "I so won that fight."

"Yeah, if by 'win' you mean 'your opponent died right as he had you cornered'," Naruto scoffed. "He's lucky he did, too, or else he would have had some explaining to do."

"Yeah, for all you've spent most of the Exam calling me useless, I can honestly say that's never happened to me," Sakura chimed in.

"I hate you all," Sasuke echoed Kakashi's earlier sentiment.

"At least we still like each other," Naruto told Sakura.

"Our friendship has seen us through many an emo mood swing," Sakura agreed.

"What did you guys do before I found you?" Kakashi inquired. "I heard Gai shouting something about how Orochimaru had killed and replaced the Kazekage and so I'm assuming that was you, but how did you know?"

"We didn't," Sakura replied. "But Naruto thought that it was a valid possibility and might unbalance some of the Suna forces. We didn't expect the entirety of the Suna shinobi to realize we were right and switch sides in the middle of the invasion."

"Although it certainly made things easier," Naruto remarked. "And Gaara had all but defected at that point anyway, so I think Baki and his siblings were just glad they could stay on the same side."

"I'm still not happy the invasion couldn't have waited until after the Exam," Sasuke scowled. "And Naruto and I will definitely need to have our match soon." He paused. "But for the record, I totally beat Gaara."

Chapter Text

Three days after the invasion, the results of the Exams were finally ready and so the Chuunin hopefuls and their sensei were gathered in Minato's office, which had not suffered any extensive damage and had quickly been repaired.

"Why are we all being called in here?" Sakura whispered. "There was a ceremony after I made Chuunin with Choji and Ino, granted, but after the original invasion I was with Shikamaru when he got the news. Basically, one of the Chuunin who worked at the Hokage Tower just threw a vest at him, congratulated him, and left."

"I'm sure they didn't just throw it at him," Naruto said skeptically. He had a lot of faith in the ninja he wanted to someday rule ove-govern but he knew that Sakura would know better than anyone else since it never actually happened to anyone who hadn't been time travelling, Sasuke and Kakashi had been made comatose by Itachi, and he himself was off trying to convince Tsunade to come back and take up the mantle of Hokage.

"He decided it was too troublesome to duck and the zipper caught him in the forehead and left a red mark for days," Sakura informed him. "Although he later said he should have just gotten out of the way because having to explain to everyone why he had a zipper-shaped indentation on his head was even more troublesome."

"Last time they probably kept things more low-key because the Sandaime was dead, Itachi snuck back into Konoha and managed to have a nice lunch and do God knows what else before being detected and then took on three Jounin at once and won, and Kakashi and I were in the hospital," Sasuke answered. "Besides, Suna's change of heart means there was a lot less damage done than could have been."

"I know that they were in the Exam and all, but why are they even here?" Kiba demanded loudly, pointing at Temari, Baki, and Gaara.

"Why do you ask me such questions?" Shino complained. "You just answered it yourself."

"But they betrayed us by allying with that one snake guy and helped to invade!" Kiba cried.

"Yeah, for about two minutes," Temari scoffed. "Then we realized that we, too, had been betrayed and helped save your precious Konoha."

"It's still weird," Kiba insisted, crossing his arms.

"Oh, you have no idea…" she said, unconsciously eyeing her little brother.

"You know, when I first entered this Exam I thought it would be a good opportunity to test my power of youth and hard work against the plethora of geniuses that were also in the Exam and I believed I was excited," Lee confided. "But now I see that I was absolutely apathetic compared to how excited I am now! I must confess, I never truly believed an S-class missing-nin could be brought down by taijutsu alone! I will never doubt again!"

"Oh great," Neji groaned. "Just what he needed. More enthusiasm. If Tenten weren't on my team, I would seriously consider joining ANBU, I really would."

"Lee! My adorable pupil! That's the spirit!" Gai called out, overwhelmed, tears running down his cheeks.

Kakashi coughed to get Gai's attention without actually having to touch his fellow Jounin-sensei lest the other man take that as a cue to initiate a 'bonding' session. "Maybe you should save the encouragements for after the results. He'll either be very happy or very disappointed and either way, you should save your all your youth for that."

"Excellent idea, my most hip rival," Gai beamed. "I've been meaning to ask, though, did you see whatever became of Kisame's sword? Ibiki thought it might come in handy during the interrogation."

"His sword?" Kakashi repeated innocently. "No, I haven't seen it. Is it missing or something?"

"So you're telling me that Shikamaru has designed a fool-proof plan to get out of doing any more D-rank missions and you intend to use it right after things get back to normal around here?" Kurenai asked enviously. Trying to sound casual, she continued, "Well, don't hold out on me!"

"Sorry, Kurenai," Asuma apologized, not sounding very sorry at all. "But it will only work the once and Shikamaru barely felt it was worth his time to come up with ONE plan to get Team Ten out of it. I don't even want to know what it would take to get him to come up with another one, although you are, of course, welcome to try."

"Why do you want to know about real estate in Konoha?" Baki asked, confused and a bit apprehensive. Gaara had always been strange but before they had left Suna at least he'd been fairly predictable.

"I am attempting to broaden my horizons," Gaara replied shortly, his plans of purchasing a vacation home left unmentioned. His fellow Suna shinobi were already concerned about his fondness for Konoha so no sense worrying them until it was too late for them to interfere.

"Why do I even need to be here?" Shikamaru wondered. "It's so troublesome. Couldn't someone have just given the vest to Asuma or something?"

"Given your sensei's concern over me violently attacking you and your teammates, I feel obliged to warn you that if you make Chuunin with that attitude and I don't, we will have problems," Temari warned.

"Violent ones, I presume," Shikamaru yawned. "How troublesome."

There was a flash of yellow which heralded the arrival of the Hokage. "Sorry I'm late," he apologized. "I had to assure some concerned citizens that there was very little chance that Orochimaru has some leftover summons running around and therefore it is quite unnecessary to kill them all. While I myself have never been fond of snakes and can understand the desire to see them gone, who knows what kind of ecological issues it would cause in the future."

Minato took a deep breath and pulled an envelope out of a pocket on his vest. "Is everyone ready to hear the results?"

Various murmurs of assent confirmed that they were.

As Minato took the paper that presumably held the names of the new Chuunin out of the envelope and unfolded it, he said, "Now remember, every one of you showed very clearly that you have the potential to one day achieve Chuunin even if you do not achieve it here today so my advice to you is to not give up, train hard, and work through some of your personal issues."

"I promise I will convince you that Fate does not control your life if it is the last thing I do, Neji!" Lee vowed.

Neji closed his eyes tightly but did not respond.

"First, from Suna, I am pleased to say that both Temari and Gaara have qualified to be Chuunin," Minato began.

"Kankuro's going to kill us," Temari grinned.

"He can try," Gaara replied succinctly.

"He should have taken his match more seriously anyway," Baki noted. "Perhaps this will convince him to do so in the future. Underestimating opponents is the fastest way to get killed during a fight."

"From Team Nine, Lee has advanced to Chuunin," Minato continued.

"Team Nine?" Naruto echoed, puzzled. "I thought they were Team Gai."

Sakura rolled her eyes. "It's like how they started calling up Team Kakashi when we reformed our Team. I've never heard them called Team Nine before, but I guess they had to have been assigned a number and the fact that a Team Nine was active would explain why we had a Team Seven, Team Eight, and a Team Ten in our graduating class."

"And does it even matter anyway?" Sasuke cut in.

"Well, no," Naruto conceded. "But since when has a lack of relevance ever stopped me?"

Lee, meanwhile, was crying. "I…I passed?"

"YOU DID IT, LEE!" Gai cheered. "THE FLAMES OF YOUR YOUTH ARE BURNING BRIGHTLY INDEED!" He stopped as he remembered he had another student in the room that did not pass. "I'm sure you'll make it next time, Neji. You are very talented."

Neji didn't look at him. "Hn."

Sakura and Naruto flinched.

"Oh God, do you think you got him over his Fate issues just to develop a bad case of Sasuke-ism?" Naruto asked frantically.

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. " 'Sasuke-ism'?"

Naruto nodded. "Yeah, you know, a refusal to talk combined with a deep and abiding hatred for happy people and an insatiable appetite for vengeance."

Sasuke rolled his eyes and hoped Naruto didn't actually use that term on a regular basis. Then again, knowing Naruto, who knew? He even names his insistence on counseling his opponents. "What does Neji have to seek vengeance for anyway? Didn't Kakashi save that one relative of his he had been angsting about?"

"Oh, I don't know," Sakura deadpanned. "Being born into the Branch Clan, having Gai and Lee on his team, being subservient to Hinata because his father was born a few minutes after his uncle…his father might not be dead, but I can think of a few reasons he might have issues."

"From Team Ten, Shikamaru is now a Chuunin," Minato pressed on despite the frequent interruptions from people who couldn't wait until he got through eight candidates.

"I did?" Shikamaru asked. "Does that mean I'm going to have to do anything? Because if it is, then no thanks."

"You can't turn it down!" Temari insisted. "Honestly, why are you even a shinobi?"

"I thought it would be less troublesome than being a civilian," Shikamaru replied. "Although now I suspect I may have been mistaken, all those years at the Academy when I refused to graduate early were excellent for napping and cloud-watching."

"I'm actually starting to feel sorry for that one girl I beat," Temari remarked. "She was on your team, wasn't she?"

"Don't bother," Shikamaru replied, inclining his head slightly to confirm that Ino was indeed on his team. "She's still seeking vengeance."

"I know," Temari said grimly. "She's tried to jump me twice since the invasion. It's really a good thing Sakura's such a good medic. Or maybe not so good as once she's fine she starts looking for me again."

"Oh thank God!" Asuma cried out. "After all the problems this Exam has caused, I don't know how I would have talked him into taking another one!'

"From Team Eight, Kiba and Shino have moved up to Chuunin," Minato announced.

"That is so awesome!" Kiba exclaimed. He stopped as something important occurred to him. "Wait…does Akamaru get promoted, too?"

Minato looked taken aback. "I…suppose so. Is your dog actually a shinobi?"

"He scored better than half the class on the graduating exam," Kiba said defensively. "And no, there's really no point asking why he even took it because I don't know. He just wanted to."

"This is good news indeed," Shino declared.

"Okay, all this waiting around is killing me," Sasuke muttered. "If Kiba passed and I didn't, ,I'm joining you on your trip to Suna, Naruto."

"And finally, from Team Seven, Sasuke, Sakura, and Naruto all passed," Minato concluded.

"Tsunade owes me 500 Ryo!" Kakashi cheered. "And I've officially trained the most talented team since the Sannin themselves."

"Well, at least Tsunade's winning streak is broken," Kurenai commented. "Last time she won we got invaded."

"I guess we don't need to run away to Suna after all," Naruto said, pretending to be put-out.

"You were planning on going to Suna if you didn't make Chuunin?" Gaara asked, wide-eyed.

"Kind of," Naruto admitted. "But don't worry, we'll still come visit."

"That's really not necessary…" Temari told him with a slight wince. "But if you insist, make sure not to bring Shikamaru with you."

"He won't agree to make the trip until his hormones demand it," Naruto said cheerfully.

"Hopefully it will go better than our first trip to Suna," Sakura said, crossing her fingers.

"From what I've heard, it would almost have to," Sasuke remarked.

----

"Have I ever told you that you're the best sensei that's ever lived?" Kakashi asked later that afternoon when it was just the two of them in Minato's office. "Because either way, I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention it again."

"You might have a few times since you made Jounin," Minato told him, sounding distinctly amused. "Increasingly often since Naruto was born."

"Well it's still true," Kakashi declared. "So why not say it?"

"You're just pleased that all of your students made Chuunin, which hasn't happened in over forty years," Minato accused.

Kakashi shrugged. "Maybe. I had hoped it would happen, but things got a little dicey towards the end, what, with the invasion and all. Who did Orochimaru end up picking? Or was his note something else entirely?"

Minato shook his head. "No, he did what he said he would and gave his recommendations. The first name on his list took up half the page, which was Sasuke's. That's a bit concerning, but I think it was just because of his…interest in the Sharingan. He also wanted Neji to pass because he is skilled with the Byakugan, Naruto and Gaara to pass because they are Jinchuriki, and Sakura to pass because she held her own against two very powerful doujutsu wielders."

"So basically, Orochimaru wanted me to achieve the same reputation as a teacher as the Professor?" Kakashi summarized. "Maybe we misjudged him…"

Minato snorted. "I doubt it. Normally we don't' have so many people pass, but as I've said from the beginning, this was a very exceptionally talented bunch. I just hope it doesn't cause problems that seven of the eight candidates made it through but not Neji. I don't want Hiashi in here complaining I'm being biased."

"I'm sure he's grateful enough that Neji's shut up about Fate for two seconds to overlook the potential slight," Kakashi assured him. "Besides, it's one thing to stop in the middle of a fight to start ranting if you're going to use it to effectively neutralize an opponent and possibly turn them into an ally like Naruto does with his Therapy Jutsu, but stopping to tell people to give up because they're failures…there are so many ways that could backfire, not the least of which is pissing his opponent off enough to break through their limits."

"True," Minato acknowledged. "It's not often that the MSR causes someone to fail and not a lack of ability because it really isn't that hard to pass, but it does happen. It's a good thing Lee qualified now, though, because in a few years I can see him being more youthful than his mentor. And Shikamaru almost had to pass because, as Asuma said, he is almost absurdly unmotivated and the best way to counteract that is by forcing some responsibility on him."

"Were there any concerns with my minions?" Kakashi asked curiously.

"Students, Kakashi," Minato corrected absently. "I was a bit concerned with how desperate they were to pass. But then again, I did know what was at stake and I kind of feel that it's enough that I had a demon sealed into my son, if I force him to deal with Gai every morning until you take pity on him and show up then no one will believe I don't hate Naruto."

"And what about everyone else?" Kakashi queried.

"Kiba conversing with his dog was a bit of a sticking point because the dog wasn't a summons that could actually speak," Minato confessed, "but it did actually seem to give him information he had no other way of being aware of so maybe it's just an Inuzuka thing. Besides, I REALLY don't want to start an incident by accusing a well-respected clan of being crazy."

"Even if they totally are?" Kakashi asked.

"Especially if they totally are," Minato confirmed. "There were no real problems with Shino and even though Temari was initially part of the invasion, she thought it was an order from her Kazekage so I suppose I can't really hold that against her. As for Gaara…he showed signs of the demon inside of him trying to break free during his match with Sasuke, but he did an admirable job of holding it back and even though his sand coffin seems like it would be an all-purpose move he could use to finish any fight, he had to actually strategize with his sand during his matches."

"Minato-sensei," Kakashi looked unaccountably nervous.

"What is it?" Minato asked, frowning. "Is everything alright?"

Kakashi nodded. "Everything's fine. It's just…there's something I need to tell you tomorrow…"

Chapter Text

The next day, Minato, Anko, Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Itachi were all waiting in Minato's office for whatever incredibly important and mildly top-secret news Team Seven had for them. Sakura, Sasuke, and Naruto were pacing outside of the office and Kakashi…hadn't shown up yet, although they really weren't sure if that was just a regression into his old tardiness or an attempt to avoid having to partake in the long-overdue secret-telling. The newly-promoted Chuunin were shamelessly eavesdropping to see if any of the five they felt really should know their secret had any idea what they were about to tell them, but as of yet it didn't appear that they did.

"So I heard you lost a bet to Kakashi about whether or not his whole team would pass," Jiraiya was saying. "Whatever happened to all of that 'have faith in your students' you were on my case about earlier?"

"I have plenty of faith in Sakura," Tsunade replied. "And in Naruto, for that matter. He's such a determined and hard-working individual."

"That he is," Minato smiled fondly. "He's really a good kid."

"So you don't have faith in Sasuke?" Itachi inquired, staring straight at the Slug Princess.

"It's nothing personal," Tsunade explained. "I've met the kid and he seems decent enough and Naruto and Sakura really seem to like him it's just…something about him just screams 'vengeance will be mine' and that is rather unsettling."

"He was rather pro-vengeance after the Massacre," Anko mused, "but then a year or so ago he seemed to decide against it – or at least decided to keep quiet about it. Too bad."

"Too bad?" Itachi repeated, raising an eyebrow. "You think this is a bad thing?"

Anko shook her head. "Not exactly. It's probably better for him and will leave him happier and saner in the long run, but I kind of miss those discussions we used to have…"

"Those mildly disturbing ones where you would describe, in great detail, all the ways you wanted to torture Orochimaru before killing him?" Itachi asked.

Anko smiled nostalgically. "Yeah, those were the days. You probably don't want to hear this, but your brother actually had some very creative ideas on the subject."

"You're right; I'd rather not hear about it," Itachi said shortly.

"You're the one who got vengeance in the end, though," Anko noted wistfully.

Itachi looked surprised. "Vengeance?"

Anko nodded. "By sealing him away forever – which is probably the best you could have done given his long-held interest in cheating death – you got vengeance for me, for Sasuke, for everyone he's experimented on and killed, and for yourself."

"I have never sought vengeance," Itachi told her.

"And yet you got it anyway," Anko replied with a shrug. "Lucky bastard…"

Kakashi had apparently felt he'd made them wait long enough as he chose that moment to stroll casually towards the Hokage's office. "So?" he asked cheerfully. "How did it go?"

"We didn't actually get around to telling them yet," Naruto told him bluntly.

"Seeing as the whole reason we're in this situation is because of you, we thought it would be only right to wait for you," Sasuke added.

"And you'll probably want a chance to tell your side of the story, too," Sakura told him. "Because if it's just up to us…you might need to steal Naruto's idea and head straight to Suna."

"You what?" Kakashi demanded, looking horrified. "Well, in that case: good luck and I'll be back in twenty minutes."

"Not happening," Sasuke said firmly. He pushed open the door as Naruto and Sakura pushed their teacher through.

"So nice of you to join us, Kakashi," Minato said dryly."And only two and a half hours late, too."

"I severely underestimated my students' patience," Kakashi said by way of explanation.

"So what is it you wanted to tell us?" Jiraiya wanted to know. "Does it have anything to do with how Naruto knows Senjutsu when I know you don't know it?"

"And why only are you only telling us?" Tsunade asked.

Minato looked stunned. "Naruto knows Senjutsu? Since when?"

Jiraiya shrugged. "I don't know but he was using it the night of the invasion. I take it that means you didn't know?"

"I can answer all of your questions," Kakashi promised. Glaring at his team, he continued, "Frankly, I'd rather someone else did, but as I seem to be out of options…answer me this: do any of you believe in time travel?"

"No," Tsunade answered immediately.

"No," Jiraiya agreed.

"No," Minato said.

"No," Itachi concurred.

"No," Anko finished off the denials.

"Well I do," Kakashi stated. "I believe in time travel. I didn't use to, but then I found a time travelling scroll four years from now and got Naruto to power it and so here we are."

"You're saying you time travelled?" Tsunade repeated. "I am not nearly drunk enough to be having this conversation. Neither are you, for that matter."

"Does that mean that Naruto also came with you?" Minato asked. "Where did you come back to?"

"Not just Naruto," Kakashi replied. "But Sasuke and Sakura, too."

"I'm still not sure I believe you," Anko told him. "If things were so dire that you had to time travel, then why didn't you tell anyone about this beforehand? Even if you wanted to keep it a secret, you should have at least told the Hokage. Unless he already did?" She looked to Minato for confirmation.

Minato shook his head. "This is the first I'm hearing of it. Not to mention that they are awfully cavalier for having the world destroyed."

"We never said that the world was destroyed," Sakura spoke up. "Actually when things settled down, they were pretty okay although everything was a mess for a few years."

"If everything was 'okay' then why in the world would you have time travelled?" Jiraiya demanded.

"We were unsatisfied with our lives," Sasuke replied. "Well, except for Sakura. We're not really sure why she wanted to go."

"I told you: I wasn't about to be left behind again!" Sakura said fiercely. "You were always leaving me behind."

"Say we believe you," Itachi addressed Kakashi. "We can work out whether we actually do or not later. If your story is true and the future was fine, what did you come back to change?"

"I can only speak for myself," Kakashi began. "I came back the day or so after I made Jounin."

"That far back?" Anko's eyes widened. "That means you're, what, ten years old than me!"

"Mentally, perhaps," Kakashi allowed. "Is that going to be a problem?"

"It would have been nice to know," Anko said honestly.

"Which is why I'm telling you now," Kakashi replied. "Minato-sensei went off to help our forces on the front lines and tasked us with destroying some bridge, I don't even remember what it was called. Rin was captured by the enemy and Obito wanted to go back for her. I…I did not."

"That was years ago," Minato said gently. "She forgave you a long time ago for your hesitation and you came through for her in the end."

Kakashi swallowed. "This time. Before…I wouldn't listen. I was stupid and arrogant and refused to consider the possibility that Obito was right, that anything could be more important than the mission. I didn't want to end up like my father so I let Obito go off alone. I did change my mind, eventually, and caught up with him." He looked almost like he was desperate for them to believe him.

"I'm sure you were," Minato assured him. "What happened then? What went wrong?"

"Right as I got there, someone snuck up behind Obito. I saved him, but it cost me my eye," Kakashi continued, unconsciously touching the eye he should have lost that day. "Obito and I went in anyway and rescued Rin. Our teamwork was better than it had ever been but…on our way out…there was a boulder. I wasn't paying attention to the enemy we had downed but not killed and I should have been. That boulder should have crushed me. It didn't."

"That sounds like a good thing," Tsunade noted.

"It would have been," Kakashi agreed. "Had the reason I was fine not been Obito pushing me out of the way at the last second and getting crushed himself. He gave me his Sharingan, which he had only awoken less than half an hour before, to make up for the eye I lost saving him. He called it a Jounin present since he hadn't gotten me one earlier. I didn't realize what the kunai you gave me really was and so when I used it, it called you and you saved Rin and I from the Iwa reinforcements."

"Just like I did years ago," Minato said softly. "Except that Obito…"

"Exactly," Kakashi nodded. "We went on to destroy the bridge and end the war. I've always been a genius so you can imagine the things I could do with a Sharingan. I may not be an Uchiha, but I could wield it better than most of them ever could. I got a reputation as 'Sharingan Kakashi' which I must confess I much prefer to my current moniker 'Man Down Kakashi' but beggars can't be choosers and I wasn't desperate enough to go corpse robbing. Rin died a little later and even though I didn't come back to save her, things had changed enough by that point that she lived."

"Don't forget to mention the big thing," Naruto prompted. "Because Sasuke bet me 500 Ryo that it wouldn't turn out the way it has the last three times the subject has come up."

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "Right. You never told anyone how you planned to stop the Kyuubi all those years ago. By the time we found out, it was too late. You were dead and Naruto was an orphan. Nobody by Jiraiya and the Sandaime really even knew what the seal was. The Sandaime chose to try and protect Naruto from your enemies by not revealing who he was and so he had Kushina's name. While no one felt the need to mention that he was the son of a hero, the Sandaime did decide to inform everyone of Naruto's Jinchuriki status."

"So?" Anko was puzzled. "Everyone knows now and it's fine. I mean, maybe he wouldn't get special treatment for being the Hokage's son if nobody knew, but still…"

Naruto snorted. "That's only because of Dad's 'my son is a hero' campaign. With him dead and Old Man Hokage pretending not to know who I was…well, with the fact that no one seemed to know anything about my parentage, a lot of people just assumed I was the Kyuubi sealed into human form. I'd rather not go into the details, but my childhood was far from idyllic. I didn't even find out why everyone hated me until I was twelve and someone who tried to betray the Village decided to let me know as there was a law preventing anyone from telling anyone – including me – that didn't hear about my Jinchuriki status from the official announcement."

Minato's eyes flashed. "I can't believe they would spit on your sacrifice like that! You haven't had any problems in this timeline, have you?"

"None whatsoever," Naruto assured his father. "In fact, it's kind of disturbing just how little hatred I'm getting. Before, I needed to defeat the guy who destroyed Konoha and convince him to bring half the village back to life before I was so universally accepted."

"I'm going to need to hear all about that, you do realize," Minato said seriously. "Whoever managed that sounds like a threat."

"I'm going to need to hear all about it, too," Jiraiya added. "Although mostly just because it sounds like quite a story."

"Was that what you meant when you said that Sandaime-sama's assertion that you were not responsible for his death would save you from 'many an accusation of murder'?" Itachi asked suddenly. "And why you needed written proof?"

"For all the good that did me…" Kakashi muttered.

"Wait," Minato said slowly. "Does this mean that you killed the Third?"

Kakashi just groaned.

Naruto blinked. "Wait…he asked if that was the case instead of just assuming that it was. Does that count?"

"I don't know," Sasuke admitted. "Sakura?"

Sakura smirked. "I think it does. And if you really wanted me to agree with you, maybe you shouldn't have given me such a hard time during the Exam."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Sasuke denied as he reluctantly reached into one of the pockets of his new Chuunin vest and took out 500 Ryo.

"You're the best, Sakura-chan," Naruto cheered as he pocketed his winnings.

Minato was confused. "What-?"

"So is that everything?" Tsunade inquired, bringing them back on topic.

Kakashi thought back. "Everything important I think…Wait, no. Back when Hinata was three and that Kumo ambassador tried to kidnap her, Hiashi was supposed to kill him and so when Kumo demanded blood Hizashi was killed and sent over instead so the Byakugan would remain out of Kumo's hands. Neji had even more issues because of that."

Minato looked mildly horrified. "Even MORE issues than the ones that already caused him to fail the MSR? You did what you had to do, Kakashi."

"So that's basically it," Kakashi finished. "And finding out that they would have been dead before they even got a chance to meet Sasuke or Naruto was part of the reason that I didn't want them to be here today."

"Only part?" Itachi asked shrewdly.

Naruto nodded, figuring it was his turn next. "The other part has to do with when and why I came back. Everyone already knows this except for Baa-chan and Anko, I think, but it doesn't really matter if Baa-chan knows and we can't really make Anko leave the room now can we?"

"Don't call me that!" Tsunade cried.

"We've been over this before," Naruto reminded her. "If you want me to stop calling you baa-chan then you need to stop being old."

"I'm not old!" Tsunade insisted.

"But you call Ero-Sennin old and you're the same age," Naruto pointed out.

Tsunade closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Trying to murder the brat in front of his father was probably not the way to go. "Just hurry up and tell us whatever you came back for."

"Keep in mind that this was before I realized that we had ended up in the same timelines," Naruto told them. "I knew that Sasuke had some vengeance-issues when he grew up and so I intended to be there for him after the Massacre."

"Only intended?" Jiraiya asked curiously.

"I met Kakashi on a double-date with Anko, Obito, and Rin and realized that something wasn't quite right and the two of us eventually realized that we had both time-travelled," Naruto explained. "So I decided to-"

"I remember that!" Anko interrupted. "You couldn't believe we were dating. I believe your words were something along the lines of 'Anko of all people'."

"To be fair, Kakashi was pretty much a confirmed bachelor before we went back," Naruto defended himself. "And like I was saying, after I found out that Sasuke was coming back as well, I decided I didn't want my trip back to be wasted so I decided to…"

"Decided to what?" Itachi asked quietly, not looking at Sasuke. He never did when the subject of the destruction of the Uchiha clan came up.

Naruto steeled himself. "I decided to impersonate Orochimaru. I had Kakashi gather a crowd and provide plenty of witnesses that he was the one to kill everyone."

Tsunade didn't look surprised. She had probably realized that wiping out such a powerful and versatile Kekkei Genkai wasn't her former teammates style.

Anko, however, was quite shocked. "You mean that's not what happened? Then who did?"

There was silence for a moment before Sasuke finally broke it by replying, "My brother."

"But…why? And why is he still here? And he was only thirteen, wasn't he?" Anko fired off the questions in rapid succession.

Since nobody else seemed like they wanted to deal with these questions, Sasuke replied, "Yes, he was. He didn't do it alone, though; Madara also partook in the Massacre. As for the why…my family was planning a coup. It took me years, really, to make my peace with it, as it were, but now that Madara is dead and Danzo, Koharu, and Homura are long dead I consider all debts settled. "

"When did you come back?" Minato demanded, his eyes wide.

"Shortly before hearing the news of Danzo's murder-suicide," Sasuke said neutrally.

"What happened to the three of them in your timeline?" Minato asked seriously. "Did you have anything to do with it?"

"In our timeline, Danzo didn't kill himself and them when we were eleven," Naruto immediately spoke up, for the moment not caring that he was lying to the Hokage and his father. "I think the difference in Konoha must have pushed up his timetable. When I was sixteen or so and Danzo was confronted with the results of his machinations, he decided to take himself and the Council with him."

"So why did you come back, then?" Tsunade asked. "If not for vengeance?"

"I wanted to have a year to readjust myself to being a child again so I could hopefully handle everything better than I did before," Sasuke replied carefully. "Last time I blamed everyone for what happened even though I knew that it wasn't really their fault. I didn't care I just wanted…I don't know what I wanted. I had been in the vengeance business for a long time and wasn't sure what to do once I found out that Itachi wasn't evil after all. I only wish I had found out before he died."

"Sasuke…" Despite the fact he'd known for years that this day could come – although not the details as he'd never given much thought to the fantastical concept of time travelling – Itachi really didn't know what to say.

"For years you lied to me, you know," Sasuke said, trying to sound casual. "And I don't mean about Orochimaru having done it. Before, there was no one else to take the blame so you became officially a missing-nin. That was the plan before Naruto and Kakashi stepped in, right? You waited until I came home and told me you killed everyone to test your 'capacity.' That you weren't going to kill me because you wanted to see if I could ever provide a challenge for you and that if I wanted to kill you, I'd need the Mangekyou Sharingan." He glanced at Naruto. "My best friend didn't like that idea but once you died I gained it anyway. Despite all of that or the reasons I should or should not have, I forgave you the minute I found out that wasn't true."

"You shouldn't," Itachi confirmed. "But thank you."

"We can talk more about it later," Sasuke offered. "I mean, I really don't want to and I doubt that you do either, but it's just one of those things that have to be done."

"I agree," Itachi said succinctly.

"What did you change, Sakura?" Tsunade asked, trying to get them to move past the Uchiha clusterfuck.

Naruto immediately started coughing.

Sakura glared at him. "Not one word or I'll take back your bet win and have Kakashi be the winner."

"I have always felt that Sakura had valid reasons for joining us and we benefit greatly from her lack of traumatizing issues," Kakashi said immediately.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Suck-up."

"I may not have had any big issues I wanted to change, per se," Sakura admitted. "Especially since the boys took care of their own problems. I just wanted to try and keep Team Seven from self-destructing again." She paused and then glared at Sasuke. "And not to be useless."

Sasuke sighed. "Which you eventually managed," he conceded.

"For the record, that's why we're not telling MY parents," Sakura informed everyone. "They wouldn't understand the lack of a real reason to come back, especially since we did eventually manage to work through a lot of the Team's issues."

"Were you my student last time?" Tsunade inquired.

Sakura nodded. "You agreed to train me after Sasuke tried to kill Naruto and ran off to live with Orochimaru in Oto."

"Stop making it sound like we were having an affair!" Sasuke ordered.

"You know, for someone who claims that didn't happen, you're awfully defensive about it," Naruto remarked.

"So…" Kakashi said brightly. "Any questions?"

Chapter Text

Needless to say, there were quite a few questions. It took awhile to get through them all, but once that was over with the added details were enough to erode much of the non-time travelers skepticism about the whole situation – not that that stopped them all from dragging one of the time travelers off to continue their discussion in private. Anko wanted to talk to Kakashi, Minato needed to understand just how bad things had been for Naruto without him, Sasuke and Itachi had some issues to work out, and Jiraiya and Tsunade really had nothing better to do than pester Sakura for more information.

"So when exactly were you planning on telling me that you were a time traveler from an almost ridiculously different timeline where the Sandaime has been in charge for all this time, Tsunade would become Hokage as soon as Naruto and Jiraiya found her, Obito and Rin were dead, we all thought Itachi was evil, and we barely knew each other?" Anko asked sweetly the minute they were safely inside their shared apartment.

"I was planning on mentioning it to you right after my students made Chuunin so the story about us time travelling – or, if we were believed, our reasons for said time travelling – wouldn't prevent them from passing the MSR. I can't imagine why I never did…" Kakashi trailed off. "Oh wait, I did tell you literally the day after Team Seven was promoted, just like I said I would."

"True," Anko acknowledged. "But you also said that the only reason you were going to tell any of us was because Naruto slipped up and you couldn't cover how he knew how to go into Sage Mode. Besides, the only reason you were even there at all for the explanation is because your students made us wait for over two hours until you finally decided to show up."

"It's my fault, really," Kakashi said mournfully. "I never should have gotten them in the habit of waiting around for me for hours on end or else they would have cracked and just told you themselves. Of course, given that that was years and years ago and presumably their later instructors wouldn't have had my tendency towards tardiness, the fact that they managed to stay in practice is rather impressive."

"Is that a 'yes I never would have told you if Naruto had used a different technique'?" Anko demanded.

Kakashi winced. "Possibly…"

"I get why you don't want to tell the world, I really do," Anko assured him. "People aren't liable to believe you or they won't know how to act if they think you are telling them the truth. They'll look at you and suddenly everything they thought they knew about you is being called into question and it will be weird. And considering that the world hadn't ended when you came back and from what I can tell you've done quite a bit to either neutralize or outright kill a lot of the people who would have gone on to cause problems in your future, it really isn't necessary to warn anyone of anything."

" 'Suddenly everything they thought they knew about you is being called into question'," Kakashi repeated. "Is that how you feel?"

Anko took a moment before answering. "A little. You have this whole separate history that I can never understand. I know how close you are with Obito, I can imagine how losing him would kill you. Then losing Rin and the Yondaime on top of it…I can imagine, but I'm never really going to get it because as far as I've seen, you never did. You say we barely knew each other and if that's the case, then I have to wonder: why would you go after me?"

"I lost everyone close to me in a very short period of time," Kakashi explained quietly. "I was a prodigy who graduated at five, as you know, which never does anyone any favors. My father was disgraced and killed himself and I overcompensated, but that still wasn't enough to save anyone. I had a lot of issues and so honestly, the prospect of entering a romantic relationship…it just wasn't going to happen. But Gai was always there to make sure I didn't steer completely away from human contact and then my students came along and even though there were many, many times that I thought they were more trouble than they were worth – particularly Sasuke when he was going through his crazy year after he technically killed Itachi – they certainly did their part in bringing me back to the land of the living."

"And me?" Anko pressed, uncertain of what ,exactly, she wanted to hear.

"Once my old team was saved and I knew that, even if they wouldn't necessarily be the same people I remembered, I would get my new team back, things were…different. I'd been through hell, I'd come back in one piece, and I highly doubted that I would manage to make things worse than they had been. It's not like I planned for us to happen, it just did," Kakashi told her seriously. He smiled wryly. "As horribly clichéd as it may be, sometimes love does just happen."

----

"Are you just going to stare at me all day?" Naruto asked, fidgeting a little as he looked at his father, who had been staring at him from across their kitchen table for quite some time. "Because it's getting a little creepy…"

"Sorry," Minato apologized, shaking his head as if to clear it. "I just can't believe…well, any of this."

"The part about the time travel?" Naruto asked. "Because while I had kind of expected Kakashi to have already told you once I realized he'd spent a good decade living in the past, I can also sort of understand why he wouldn't want to. Or even how to convince everyone that it was true, for that matter."

"No, I think I'm actually starting to believe you," Minato confided. "You know far too much, both as a newly-minted Chuunin and as my son who I wanted to keep far away from some of Konoha's less than proud moments."

"Then what's the mental stumbling block?" Naruto wanted to know.

"Just how bad was your childhood?" Minato demanded. "I mean, I knew it wouldn't be easy and there was a sizeable resistance to seeing you as the hero you are back in those early days, but by the time you were actually old enough to remember anything, the villagers had come around."

Naruto thought back. "The ninja themselves were always professional if unhelpful. It was the citizens who understood even less than the ninja did and lacked their discipline that caused most of my problems."

"How bad was it, Naruto?" Minato asked again, piercing his son with a gaze.

Naruto merely shook his head. "You love this village, Dad. I love this village, for all that nobody understands how I managed that prior to the Chuunin Exams when things started to change. I don't want you to have to get all worked up over things that have never happened."

Minato sighed. "You're right, I suppose. Still, how could things have been so bad for you? I was in the middle of telling Sarutobi-sama that wanted you to be seen as a hero when Kakashi burst in informing him what I was planning on doing and from what I understand, in the other timeline I did make my wishes clear. Add that to the fact that Jiraiya was apparently alive and well, why couldn't he have taken you in or something? He's your godfather!"

Naruto shrugged. "I really don't know. He never really got around to mentioning he was my godfather because had he done that he would have had to explain why he couldn't be bothered to be a responsible adult and take me in. Oh, and that you were my father, which didn't come out until after his death. Still, I think it was mostly the fact he just couldn't be bothered."

"What was he even doing that he couldn't take in his own godson until you were ready to become his apprentice?" Minato wondered, already planning on yelling at his mentor later even if the Jiraiya he'd be lecturing was one that was never called upon to take in his orphaned son and looking for ammunition.

"I think he was keeping tabs on Orochimaru and, after he joined up, the flowery cloaked assassins," Naruto informed him. "And while I'm not positive because I didn't find out about Itachi's true allegiance until both he and Ero-Sennin were both dead, I think he was also Itachi's contact."

"Why do you keep calling the Akatsuki the 'flowery cloaked assassins'?" Minato inquired, genuinely curious. "Their cloaks had clouds on it, if I recall correctly."

"Because it pisses them off and they pissed me off," Naruto said bluntly. "But then again, given that they kidnapped Gaara and tortured him to death – he got better, but there was a unique set of circumstances that lead to that – and then proceeded to hunt down all of the other Jinchuriki, including me, maybe it's not surprising that I've never been very fond of them."

"I see," Minato said. "But what about now? Did we kill or take down all of them or are there still members of the Akatsuki out there?"

"I'm not sure if all of the missing-nin on the original roster even joined up," Naruto replied. "From what Kakuzu was saying, I don't think Hidan was a member, for instance. Two people who I know were involved and not neutralized are Konan and Nagato."

"Konan and Nagato?" Minato repeated. "Who are there?"

"They were the official leaders of Akatsuki, even if Madara was really the one pulling the strings," Naruto revealed. "Of course, there's really nothing you can do to them legally as they are the legitimate rulers of Amegakure following a coup and a civil war, I think. Nagato hates us because Konoha ninja accidentally killed his parents one time and I think Danzo screwed him over once. Konan only hates us because Nagato does, so if we make an effort to at the very least NOT screw them over anymore and possibly offer some sort of aid, we should be able to neutralize him."

"That might be something to consider," Minato agreed. "Although, of course, I'll need to look into the situation more."

"Don't bother sending a spy," Naruto warned him. "It rains all the time in Amegakure and the rain lets them know when someone who isn't supposed to be there arrives. Last time Jiraiya went and Nagato killed him. Of course, he goes by 'Pein' but I think that's a brutish name so I call him Nagato."

"I think I've heard the name 'Nagato' before," Minato mused aloud.

"He was once Jiraiya's student," Naruto explained. "Fun fact, he's the guy my namesake is based on in Ero-Sennin's only child-friendly book."

"And he managed to kill Jiraiya?" Minato looked extremely concerned. Anyone that powerful was definitely someone to watch out for.

"Nagato is insanely powerful, yes," Naruto confirmed. "He kind of cheats since he uses reanimated corpses and stays far away from the fighting himself but doing so seems to take its toll on his actual body. He has the Rinnegan, you see, and he was able to stand up to me until I went eight-tales. That wasn't the best idea, but I did enjoy freaking him out."

"That settles it, I am definitely going to be looking into this VERY closely the minute we're done with rebuilding and making sure there's no lasting damage to our alliance with Suna," Minato decided.

"Oh, are you having problems with that since they half-way betrayed us?" Naruto asked, intrigued.

Minato nodded. "Among other things, they thought the best way to ensure peace was a political marriage between you and the previous Kazekage's daughter, Temari."

All of the color drained from Naruto's face. "You said no, right?"

"Of course I said no," Minato assured his son. "They're the ones who half-way betrayed us; why should they get to make demands?"

Naruto let out a huge sigh of relief. "Oh thank God. I thought future Shikamaru would somehow find out and then also come back in time and kill me…"

----

Itachi and Sasuke didn't go home as they didn't want to risk Rin or Obito walking in at the wrong time. Instead, they headed over to the vacant but preserved Uchiha district and walked in silence for some time.

"So you've known the entire time," Itachi said finally.

"It depends on what you mean by that, really," Sasuke replied. "Originally, there was no Naruto to pull off an over-the-top cover-up and pin the blame on someone he sincerely believes to be a child molester and no Kakashi to back him up. There was only me coming back from training to find a district full of bodies and you, standing over mom and dad, doing your best to convince me that you were a psychopath and to try and push me into getting stronger, ostensibly so I could get vengeance on you. Madara said you always planned on dying by my hand, both so I could get the Mangekyou Sharingan to better protect myself and so I could avenge our clan and be hailed as a hero. Is that true?"

"I really did not have the rest of my life mapped out so fully, but I can certainly see that as a viable option," Itachi answered. "Probably the best option."

"How?" Sasuke demanded. "How could me hating you and killing you possibly be the 'best' option?"

Itachi answered the question with one of his own. "You understand that I had to leave Konoha, correct? The clan could not be destroyed with no culprit; everyone would panic over the security breach. With the lack of convenient blame-claiming missing-nin, the person held responsible would have to be me."

"What about Madara?" Sasuke challenged. "He was involved, I know, and letting people know he was alive would have saves us all a lot of trouble in the end."

"How would I have known he was alive?" Itachi inquired. "Why hadn't I mentioned him sooner? How did I know that it was, in fact, really him, especially since he never took his mask off? It was rather unbelievable but everyone knew I existed and it provided the perfect opportunity for Konoha to place one of its own in the Akatsuki. We knew very little about it, but if it were truly run by Madara, Konoha was certain to feel its wrath at some point."

"But what about me?" Sasuke pressed.

Itachi cocked his head. "You were eight, Sasuke. Do you really think you would have been better off growing up on the run surrounded by missing-nin? Sometimes people become missing-nin for political reasons, but usually they are violent amoral people that children should not spend vast periods of time with."

"I would have been better off with you," Sasuke insisted stubbornly.

"Would you have?" Itachi wondered aloud. "I somehow doubt it. Missing-nin have no future, you know. A group like the Akatsuki, while I am not the expert I seem to have been in your first timeline, would provide more of a direction and a better chance of survival by joining with other powerful missing-nin but you would still have no options. I was not about to destroy your future any more than killing the clan already had."

"But they wanted to kill me," Sasuke pointed out.

"Only Danzo wanted to kill you," Itachi countered. "And he clearly didn't. The Council saw the benefits of keeping the Sharingan in existence and you were young enough not to be a threat or even remotely involved in the coup. I do not remember much of the Sandaime, but if he was anything like Hokage-sama then he would be more than willing to let you live as you were so very clearly innocent."

"Alright, so maybe me staying in Konoha was for the best," Sasuke conceded grudgingly. "But why was it so important that I hate you? I mean, I can understand that you really can't answer why you'd go so far to ensure that I would since you haven't, but you must have had a plan for when I showed up ready. Getting me on the path you wanted since that was going to be the last I'd see of you for years was a little too important to be left to improvisation."

"I had just ruined your life, Sasuke," Itachi explained. "And you were eight. You were far too young to be left on your own, but the clan needed to be stopped and I really could not stay. You needed a purpose or I feared you would just waste away. You were in danger, even if you didn't realize it. Not only was everyone who wanted a Sharingan going to realize that between the two options they knew of, you were easily the more practical option but Madara was out there and I knew he would come after you the minute I was gone. You needed to get stronger and if your hatred of me and desire to avenge the clan would save you, then so be it."

"You know, I think dying allowing me to hate you is the one thing I can't forgive you for," Sasuke said softly. "You killed our family, but they used you, both our clan and the Konoha higher-ups. They used you and you knew that and it was a bad situation that never should have happened. It did, though, and it may very well have been inevitable. Once I learned the truth I was already thoroughly sick of hating you but you'd always been so careful to never give me a reason not to. Once I found a reason…I really don't see how I could have not forgiven you."

"So instead you took it out on Konoha," Itachi sounded faintly disapproving.

Sasuke winced. "That…that was the year I was having a lot of problems. Suffice to say, it all got worked out eventually and I'd really rather not talk about it."

"You were clearly having problems before if you abandoned Konoha for the likes of Orochimaru," Itachi noted.

Sasuke scowled and crossed his arms. "In my defense, I had a curse seal that was accentuating all of my negative emotions, Naruto had just taken down a transformed Gaara single-handedly while I could barely even move, you had just shown up because the Sandaime had died to warn Danzo not to touch me and ended up putting me in a Tsukuyomi-induced coma, and to make matters worse, Kakashi had just asked me to give up vengeance. Those Oto nin caught me at a really good time."

"You still should not have left," Itachi insisted.

Sasuke shrugged. "While I agree that the less time spent with Orochimaru the better, I got where I am today because of the path I took then. And besides, it's all worked out. And to get back to your original question, in this timeline, I believed that Orochimaru was responsible for the Massacre until I was eleven and came back the day that Danzo and the Council died."

"Did you kill them?" Itachi asked sharply.

"Would you really want to know if I did?" Sasuke shot back. "Bear in mind that by the time I heard they were dead, I still hadn't recovered my memories of this timeline prior to coming back and had no idea you were still in Konoha."

Itachi was quiet for a moment. "No, I would rather not know," he conceded.

----

"So Jiraiya and Naruto forced me to become Godaime, huh?" Tsunade asked the moment the three of them were alone in her office.

"I guess so," Sakura confirmed. "I personally wasn't there but Jiraiya said it was all him. Then Naruto said all he did was get poisoned and so he was really the one who did all the work. All I know was that it involved you kicking Orochimaru's ass."

"Poisoned?" Jiraiya moaned. "Jiraiya the Gallant should never get poisoned, it's just bad form. I'm going to blame Tsunade-hime for that one since you obviously wouldn't know."

"I kicked Orochimaru's ass? I suppose that couldn't have been that bad, then," Tsunade decided. "Still, Hokage? My great-uncle warned me about that position. That talk gave me nightmares about never-ending piles of paperwork for a year!"

"Really?" Jiraiya asked, surprised. "I thought you didn't want the position because of Dan and Nawaki."

"No," Tsunade shook her head. "It was definitely hearing about all the paperwork. Since Dan and Nawaki's dreams of becoming Hokage didn't go so well, that just furthered my resolve. Thank you so much, Sakura, for saving me from the horrors of Hokage-hood." She paused, then continued nervously, "You DO think I'll be safe from being Godaime, right? Because if not, I can resign from the Council and the hospital and leave right now."

"Hokage-sama is a lot younger than Sandaime-sama was," Sakura was quick to remind her mentor. "So he probably won't be dropping dead of old age anytime soon. And Sandaime-sama was killed by Orochimaru, kind of, and Orochimaru was neutralized by Itachi so that won't be an issue. With any luck, Hokage-sama can stay in charge for awhile and Naruto will become the Godaime. If not, just make Kakashi do it. Trust me, he's had experience and Naruto likes the idea of being Rokudaime better anyway."

"If you say so," Tsunade said suspiciously, making a note to herself to have an escape plan ready if need be, much as she had when it looked like Minato might die during the Kyuubi attack.

"Hey, I've been wondering something," Jiraiya spoke up. "Since Naruto basically united and saved the entire ninja world, does that make him the Child of Prophecy that I was supposed to teach? I always thought it would have been Nagato. I mean, he had the Rinnegan. I didn't even think that really existed before I met him. I heard he died, though…"

"He didn't die," Sakura informed him. "He kind of went crazy and set himself up as 'Pein' the leader of Amegakure and Akatsuki and mostly speaks through his friend Yahiko's dead body that he controls, but he's not dead. Neither is Konan, for that matter. And I think the consensus on the prophecy issue was basically he and Naruto were both the Children of Prophecy, but you should probably ask him about that."

There was silence for a moment.

"And THAT is exactly why I keep telling you that taking in apprentices and then ditching them to go off 'researching' is a bad idea," Tsunade said triumphantly.

"Exactly?" Jiraiya asked skeptically, raising his eyebrows.

Tsunade nodded. "Exactly."

"Maybe I should have listened to Orochimaru and simply killed them," Jiraiya said sarcastically. "It certainly seems like it would have saved a lot of problems."

"I'm not sure I would go that far," Tsunade objected. "If this whole mess has taught us anything, it's that listening to Orochimaru is a bad idea and we should try to avoid that where we can."

"You didn't answer my questions," Jiraiya pointed out. "Do you think I should I have done that, if Orochimaru hadn't been the one to suggest it?"

"…If this whole mess has taught us anything, it's that listening to Orochimaru is a bad idea and we should try to avoid that where we can."

Chapter Text

Three weeks passed and everything was slowly returning to normal after the invasion, although the effects of the time travel secret being shared were still lingering. Tsunade was refusing to so much as step foot in the Hokage Tower, Jiraiya had sent a missive off to Amegakure telling Nagato and Konan he had heard they were running the Village and informing them that he would have kept in contact but he had believed them to be dead, Minato had opened up a dialogue with the leaders of Amegakure (who couldn't have been more surprised), Itachi looked more relaxed now that he no longer had to fear Sasuke finding out the truth but not pleased that his brother knew, and Anko had added 'guilt Kakashi about not mentioning he was a time traveler' to her rather lengthy list of ways to get Kakashi to show up places on time. Minato had also taken up eyeing some of the Villagers suspiciously but as per Naruto's request, tried to remember that his son had never been ostracized in this timeline. Not that that stopped him from yelling at Jiraiya, of course.

Almost before they knew it, the day of Anko and Kakashi's wedding was upon them. As Kakashi was much more lively in this timeline than his previous one and due to his close association with the Hokage, all of the ninja knew him and most showed up to the ceremony. To the surprise of nearly everyone present, Kakashi actually showed up fifteen minutes before the ceremony was to start of his own volition – that is, if by 'of his own volition' one meant 'because he was terrified of what Anko would do to him if he was late.' Still, he was there and got married without a hitch and that was really all that mattered.

Then, of course, there was the reception. Alcohol was provided and, perhaps foolishly, no one had thought to set a limit on drinks or minimum age so anyone who had graduated from the Academy and made it to Genin could have as much as they liked.

"I can't believe you finally got married," Obito remarked as he downed yet another drink. He wasn't drunk yet but at the rate he was going he'd be feeling it in the morning. "You and Anko were dating for, what, five years? I honestly thought you were going to die a bachelor at the speed you were going. "

"I didn't want to rush things," Kakashi claimed. "And Anko didn't care when we got married as long as she didn't think I wasn't taking our relationship seriously."

"And did she ever think that?" Obito felt the need to ask.

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "I'm still alive and unmaimed, aren't I?"

"Point," Obito conceded. "You new wife is kind of crazy, you know that, right?"

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "If I didn't, don't you think now's a little late to be warning me about this?"

"If you didn't notice after five years of dating, you completely deserved to find out on your own," Obito claimed.

"We're veteran ninja," Kakashi pointed out. "We're all a little crazy. Or a lot. Or disturbingly so. The point is, there's a reason there's no MSR to become a Jounin. Besides, the crazy is half the fun."

"I don't know," Obito said slowly. "Her one-time crush on you notwithstanding, Rin seems to be fairly stable."

"You want to know why I was never able to return her feelings? That's part of it right there," Kakashi declared.

"Well I, for one, am grateful that she's too sane for your tastes," Obito laughed.

"And I, for one, am officially starting to feel old," Minato announced, coming up to stand beside them. "All three of my former students are now happily married and I'm still single…"

Obito grinned. "And you're over here because Jiraiya and Tsunade didn't appreciate you talking about being old when you're fifteen or so years younger than them? And what are you worried about? You don't really have to feel worried about feeling old until Naruto's wedding."

Minato sighed. "Naruto's wedding. I know he's only thirteen, but I've heard so many things about his potential love interests that I'm starting to have nightmares about it already."

"You mean because no one can make up their mind if he's going to marry Sakura and you'll have pink-haired grandchildren, Hinata and you'll have to deal with Hyuuga tradition every step of the way, Gaara and Naruto will be the only Hokage to have ever lived in Suna, or Sasuke and they'll probably not bother with a wedding but just live in sin for the rest of their lives?" Kakashi asked innocently.

Minato groaned. "YES. I have got to stop talking to Kurenai or I'm never going to get any sleep until he's engaged."

"Or not, if it's Sasuke," Kakashi added helpfully. "Of course, then Itachi might very well kill him for 'corrupting' his little brother…"

"SO not helping," Minato complained, shaking his head and resolving to keep a closer eye on his son and his interaction with the four supposed top contenders for his heart from now on.

"I can't believe in only takes two shots to get Lee completely wasted," Neji was complaining. "How in the world did he manage to pass the MSR and not me?"

"I suspect the lack of alcohol present at the exam might have had something to do with it," Tenten replied dryly. "And so what if he has a bit of an…extreme reaction to alcohol? That doesn't necessarily bring his sanity into question."

"He's fighting imaginary opponents," Neji pointed out. "And two shots isn't nearly enough alcohol to start hallucinating so he's either seeing things on his own, which calls his sanity into question, or legitimately thinks he's fighting invisible opponents, which also, coincidentally, calls his sanity into question."

"Two shots might be enough alcohol for that last one," Tenten told him thoughtfully. "I could always call him over and ask him whether his enemy is invisible or not, if you'd like."

"No!" Neji shouted. He cleared his throat. "I mean, that's hardly necessary. He's likely to do less damage fighting his invisible enemies."

"True," Tenten allowed. "So I suppose we should be thankful that it's worked out like this. Remind me to never, ever let Lee near alcohol again, though. Sooner or later, he'd do some collateral damage or start looking for real opponents."

"Agreed," Neji said grimly. "Where is Gai-sensei, anyway? He should be putting a stop to this or something."

"He's right over there," Tenten said, gesturing over to their teacher standing a few feet back from Lee and partially hidden by some trees. "I think he's taking notes."

"Taking notes?" Neji repeated. "You don't think he means to see if he can get Lee to utilize his drunken strength in battle, do you?"

"Would it surprise you in the slightest if he did exactly that?" Tenten asked rhetorically.

Neji sighed deeply. "I guess that means we're going to have to hide the alcohol from Gai-sensei, too. And to think, apparently I'm the unbalanced one."

"Well, you were doing fine until you started ranting at Sakura," Tenten reminded him. "And when she flat-out told you at the end that she wouldn't have won if you hadn't wasted so much time ranting at her certainly didn't help matters. Maybe if you'd won they might have been able to overlook that, but as it stands…"

"It was really all I could not to start lecturing her about how inappropriate her hair color was for a ninja," Neji said honestly. "I mean, seriously? Pink? You just can't take that seriously and it's horrible for stealth. I figured that would not go over very well, however, and went for my fall-back lecture."

"That was probably a good idea," Tenten decided. "But it still cost you Chuunin status. But don't worry; we're sure to make it in the next exam six months from now."

"So, Hinata?" Kiba asked. "You know how your cousin is really, really scary?"

"Which cousin would that be?" Hinata inquired. "I have many relatives, after all."

"I think he means Neji," Shino told her, "if the way he jumps when Neji looks at him is any indication."

"I do not jump," Kiba scowled. "Although yes, I do mean Neji."

"I have never been scared of him," Hinata answered. "So no, I'm sorry but I wouldn't really know."

"Well pretend you know that," Kiba instructed. "Does the fact that he's considered a prodigy and is a year older than us with a year's more worth of experience as a genin and yet he failed to make Chuunin but everyone else in the finals managed just fine bother him?"

"I think it does, a little," Hinata confessed. "Although I think it is mostly that Lee made it and not him. They're rivals and things tend to get messy when it looks like one of them is superior to the other in something."

"At least Tenten's with him," Kiba declared. "I know she'll calm him down."

"What do you mean?" Shino asked. "No, wait, I am nearly positive I do not wish to know."

"Too late, you asked," Kiba told him smugly. "Tenten and Neji are so clearly interested in each other that it's inevitable that they'll start dating sooner or later, especially because they have no real reason not to as neither of them is in denial about their sexuality or have a single-minded obsession that precludes them from committing to a relationship."

"You think that they like each other?" Hinata asked, surprised. "How come?"

"I wouldn't know for sure, of course, but I think that they were drawn together by their need to find a bit of sanity amongst the craziness which is Lee and Gai," Kiba theorized. "Which is rather ironic given that Lee passed the MSR and Neji didn't. Tenten didn't have to face the MSR so I don't know how she would do. Perhaps I have it all wrong and Gai and Lee are too sane for them. Of course, that is in and of itself a very scary thought…"

"Why must you attempt to play matchmaker with everyone you know?" Shino demanded. "It gets very tiresome sometimes."

"I do not 'play matchmaker'!" Kiba insisted, affronted. "I just point out the obvious. And speaking of, I saw Kurenai-sensei and Asuma holding hands last week so I'd like it to be known that I was totally right about that."

"If you pair everyone up, sooner or later you will be right once," Shino said shortly.

"I do not pair everyone up," Kiba claimed.

"Really?" Hinata asked surprised. "It really seems like it, though."

"Sure, the most obvious secret love is the one between Sasuke and Naruto, Ino and that one guy with the navel shirt I thought would be good together talked for the better part of two hours earlier tonight, Temari and Shikamaru seem like they could balance each other out when he gets older, Tenten and Neji are practically dating already, Kurenai-sensei and Asuma are dating, Jiraiya seems just a few more rejections away from a shot with Tsunade, and Kankuro spends a little too much time with his puppets is no reason to think I'm obsessive or anything," Kiba claimed.

"Where did we go wrong with you?" Shino wondered aloud. "And is it too late to reverse the damage?"

"Hey, it's not like Kurenai-sensei doesn't do it, too," Kiba said defensively. "Although her track record isn't one hundred percent. Did you know that she used to think Kakashi and Iruka had a thing before Anko entered the picture? It took her years before she was convinced Anko wasn't just Kakashi's beard. And speaking of Sakura…"

"No one on Team Seven has shown any interest in each other. Or in anyone," Hinata objected, somewhat sadly. "So I don't believe that Sasuke or Naruto are using Sakura in that regard."

Kiba snorted. " 'No interest' indeed. And Sakura…she's hard to pin down. I can't tell if she has feelings for Naruto, Sasuke, Lee, or Ino. Who knows? Maybe she can't make up her mind either and that's why I'm getting these mixed signals."

"Did Kiba just decide Sakura might be in love with me and I'm in love with Sai?" Ino wondered, sitting down besides Shikamaru and Choji on the grass.

"Kiba thinks everyone is in love with each other," Shikamaru replied, stretching his arms. "The whole thing is rather troublesome."

"You would think that since he thinks you'll end up with a violent and bossy girl with two brothers who are either psychotic or a Jinchuriki," Choji noted.

"At least he did not put me with Ino," Shikamaru murmured.

Ino's eye twitched. "Excuse me? Keep in mind that I'd sooner stab myself than date you, but why are you so against the idea of dating someone as beautiful as me?"

"While I think Temari might be even more troublesome than you are, she does live in Suna and you are my teammate so if we did date and things ended badly, it would be more troublesome if it were you rather than her," Shikamaru explained. "Of course, girls are far too troublesome to bother with anyway."

"Better not tell Kiba that," Choji warned. "He'll simply decide you're gay and before you know it he'll go around insisting we're in love."

"At least it would be less troublesome," Shikamaru mused. "And no children, either. Children seem like they would be troublesome."

"Temari's right," Ino said, rolling her eyes. "We really could replace you with a button that said 'troublesome' and no one would notice the difference. Of course, given that I've yet to get my vengeance on her and she's bravely ran away to Suna, if she decided she liked you, I might be willing to bite the bullet and date you first so I could get back at her that way."

"You're such an admirable person, Ino," Shikamaru deadpanned.

Ino smiled brightly. "I know, it's a gift."

"I don't think that's quite what he meant…" Choji said quietly. "But who is this 'Sai' guy? Do we know him?"

"Oh, he's the guy I was talking to earlier," Ino explained. "He's cute and looks kind of like Sasuke-kun but there's no way I'd date him just yet. He has…issues."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. " 'Issues'? And Sasuke doesn't?"

" 'Issues' as in 'he was in a secret illegal branch of ANBU that tried to turn him into an emotionless zombie until their leader died less than two years ago'," Ino clarified. "He says he's made a lot of progress, which is a bit unnerving, but I'm sure he'll make more in the years to come. Besides, unlike certain other people I could mention, he always calls me beautiful."

"Telling you what you so obviously want to hear," Shikamaru said wryly. "That's absolutely amazing, really."

"That's it, Temari would have to want to have your babies before I'd even remotely consider getting involved with you," Ino declared dramatically.

"Thank God for small mercies," Shikamaru muttered.

"WHAT DID YOU SAY?!?!"

"If Kiba thinks hostility is secretly a sign of hidden affection, why doesn't he think Ino and Shikamaru could make it?" Choji wondered.

"Do you ever get the feeling that all of our friends are insane?" Naruto wondered aloud.

"All the time," Sasuke replied promptly. "And all things considered, that's really saying something coming from the three of us."

"Well, it's not like they don't think we're crazy, too," Sakura pointed out. "But at least we have having to relive at least a few years of our lives as our excuse. What's theirs?"

"Insanity is contagious?" Naruto suggested. "Seriously, with less Neji brooding and Sasuke having enough sense to keep his issues to himself, what's there to get all serious over? Everyone was pretty light-hearted unless they had deep dark pasts I needed to personally help them overcome until after Orochimaru killed the Sandaime anyway."

"It's kind of sad that the person it took the longest for you to personally change their entire worldview would be the one person who was on the same team as you and you spent the most time with," Sakura remarked.

"That's because I clearly had the most traumatic past," Sasuke claimed.

Sakura rolled her eyes. "You just keep right on thinking that."

"What would you know? You never had a sob story," Sasuke sniffed. "And Naruto only ever acted like he did once or twice even though his was arguably worse than most people's."

"But not yours, right?" Naruto asked, grinning.

"Absolutely not," Sasuke agreed. "The only person whose life I am willing to admit might possibly have been worse than mine is Itachi's."

"That's love, right there," Sakura declared, pretending to wipe a tear from her eye.

"Seriously, though, for all the insanity we've wrought, especially since Sakura-chan's returned, I really do think that things have worked out for the best," Naruto told them earnestly. "I mean, the Akatsuki is mostly gone already, Sasuke's still here, Obito, Rin, and my father are still alive, Kakashi got married – even if it is to the scariest woman I've ever met – Jiraiya and Asuma don't necessarily have to die, Itachi's still here and not trying to convince us all he's evil, Sakura…she still has us," he finished lamely.

Sakura's eyes narrowed. "Oh, not you, too! Seriously, both of you go die."

"I guess she's turned into the new you," Naruto told Sasuke.

"You'd better watch out then so she doesn't decide to seek vengeance," Sasuke cautioned.

"How am I supposed to do that?" Naruto wondered. "Get myself killed before she can get to me?"

"That could work," Sasuke agreed. "Or possibly me if she holds me responsible for this. Or maybe…" he trailed off.

Naruto cocked his head. "You think it would work? I don't think she's ever been on the receiving end of one before."

Sasuke shrugged. "Why not? It's worked on everyone else you've ever tried it on, even me, eventually."

Sakura was starting to get nervous. "What are you guys talking about?"

Naruto and Sasuke's matching smirks were decidedly evil.

"I'm going to give you a friendship speech," Naruto said cheerfully.

Sakura gulped.

Note: Friendship Speech=Therapy Jutsu without the need to get into an epic battle at Anko and Kakashi's wedding reception as all that alcohol and all those ninja might make that a bad idea, even by Team Seven's standards.

It's The End so Review Please!