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Of The Leaf

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1st of January, 66 f.K.

Jiraiya sighed heavily as he settled back into the soft chair, sake cup in his left hand. He sipped from it lightly and leaned back in comfort, and finally acknowledged Kakashi leaning against the far wall of his room in the inn.

"How was the clan council meeting?" Kakashi asked, but he could probably guess the outcome just from the way Jiraiya was broadcasting his body language.

"Long, tedious, and ultimately promising. They accept that I have final say on the Hokage position, but are rather hesitant to listen to my suggestions; I think they fear I am going to put your name in. I haven't pressed them very hard for it yet."

"What can I do?" Naruto put in eagerly, looking up from the dice game he and his teammates were playing on the small table. While his attention was turned away, Sasuke tipped one of the dice to a different side and sent Sakura a silencing glare; the girl gave nothing away.

Jiraiya snorted. "Same thing you did today, brats. Walk around the village. Reconnect with your friends. Let people get to know you. I'm not keeping this interim seat for more than a month, so you'd better work fast. I already started: talked your team up, told them how you worked for my network and eliminated enemies of Konoha even as rogue-nin.

"Starting the day after tomorrow, I'm going to be giving you missions as fast as you can take them with as many teams as are available to work with. On the missions you will impress on Konoha's teams the depth of your training and competence. Obviously, this will take a lot of lying, because you guys aren't that great."

Naruto squawked in outrage, head flying up from where he'd been looking suspiciously at his dice. Sakura reacted with a sudden venomous glare, while Sasuke hardly glanced up at all. He dismissed the comment with a grunt at the same time as he tipped one each of Sakura and Naruto's dice.

"He's winding your springs, Naruto." Kakashi interjected dryly. "Also, Sasuke, you need better moves."

Sasuke snorted. "Not for these two I don't."

Naruto whipped back around to the table and glared at the dice. He switched his gaze up to Sasuke as he swept the dice off the table and into their soft felt bag. "I knew you were cheating," he grumbled, "You can't win against me if you don't."

Sasuke shrugged in an entirely unrepentant way, then turned the conversation back to Jiraiya. "So what else happened at the council meeting?"

Jiraiya sighed heavily again. "Well, you're all formally reinstated as Konoha ninja. Housing is still being worked out - Sasuke, Danzo seized all Uchiha assets when you were declared AWOL, so the Uchiha compound is now an expansion district with the Military Police headquarters on the edge; you won't be getting that land back.

"I didn't tell them that we recruited Tsunade into this effort - if I give them even a hint of another option, they won't swallow Naruto as the Hokage so soon." Naruto's expression twisted oddly at this, and Jiraiya saw it. "What?"

"I'm not even seventeen yet," Naruto pointed out, "Am I really all that qualified to lead the whole village?"

Jiraiya started laughing, almost uncontrollably, and waved at Kakashi to answer the question. Kakashi rolled his eyes over to Naruto and fixed him with a dispassionate stare. "No one else who might possibly be qualified will do it."

Naruto's jaw fell open. "No one? Who?"

"The clan heads lead their families, so they're all too biased. Jiraiya doesn't want to. Tsunade would sooner give up gambling than lead the village. The other ninja strong enough to take the post aren't respectable enough to do so..." Kakashi muttered something under his breath, which sounded oddly like 'guy', "And the people who are temperamentally capable of holding the post aren't strong enough physically to intimidate other villages and lords."

His genin - Kakashi made a mental note to see about immediate promotions - chewed this over for a moment. Then Sakura's gaze flicked up to him with a mischievous light. "What about you, sensei?"

Jiraiya, who had almost completely recovered from Naruto's question, burst into fresh peals of laughter. Sasuke began glaring holes in the back of his head.

Kakashi managed, after a moment, to unstick the choking feeling in his throat. "Never," he vowed, "Not if the dark god himself came up and asked me."

"Why not?" asked Naruto. And after all this time, he still seemed so innocent to Kakashi. He had more blood on his hands than Sakura and Sasuke combined, but some part of him was pure.

"I do my best work from the shadows," Kakashi replied. "The Hokage usually acts in the open; that's not my strength. Whereas Naruto just can't seem to keep quiet."

"Hey!" Naruto exclaimed, and launched into a telling of every single time he had been stealthy - as though his team hadn't been present for every moment.

2nd of January, 66 f.K.

"And when Tsunade finally gets her ass back to the village, I'm sure she'd love to talk to you about that in excruciating detail." Jiraiya dismissed Koharu Itatade. The old woman went white as a sheet and sat back. She held her tongue.

Jiraiya was unexpectedly delighted by how cowed the Hokage's Council had become in the aftermath of the revelation Danzo's treachery. Both old ninja knew that they had lost respect and political power because they had supported Danzo so strongly.

Koharu and Homura wanted to put Team Seven on probation, and split up the team altogether. Neither had acknowledged Jiraiya's comment that he would certainly know if any of them had truly gone rogue-nin; Koharu had pressed even farther to imply that they should look into ways to extract the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox from Naruto.

Jiraiya had replied that he would sooner give Naruto to an enemy village than see that happen.

"Now, moving on to things that actually matter. I want Danzo's name struck from Konoha's records and his face sanded off the mountain. His name will not go on the memorial stone; he never existed at all."

Now Homura paled too. "Not even traitors have their names struck from the village's records."

Traitors didn't get their names on the Memorial Stone, or spoken at the Memorial Festival, but they stayed on the records; often it was the only indication that they had ever lived at all, since most went into deep hiding if they wanted to survive.

"From now on, no one is even to say his name," Jiraiya commanded. "You would know why if you thought about something other than your own position and power for just a second. When Team Seven killed that man, they set something in motion that must be stopped.

"They killed a Hokage. Think about that. It was an assassination of the one person in the village who is supposed to be untouchable. The one person meant to lead us all. The Hokage is Konoha; the Hokage's word is law, no matter what that word is. If our Hokage pushes us down the same path as, say, the Mist, we are supposed to follow. Without question. That's what we swore allegiance to. The second, the very second that we allow the Hokage to become less than god-like to the village, our power will crumble. Konoha will collapse in on itself.

"This village was built to be carried by one person, for all ninja."

Koharu and Homura sat in the seats across from the Hokage's desk in thoughtful silence.

Homura began hesitantly, "I begin to see what you mean. If the village remembers that the Hokage was once assassinated and his killers allowed to remain, it sets a kind of precedent."

"So are you admitting that your defense of this team is biased? That you are wrong?" Koharu looked between them.

Jiraiya growled. "No. I'm saying that the village cannot remember this. It will not be recorded; it never happened. A man named Danzo Shimura was never Hokage here. I already have made contact with most other village leaders about their records. For one reason or another, they will agree that it is for the best if that man's name is forgotten. Whoever I choose to take the seat will be the Fifth Hokage, and the last three years will be known as that uneventful time in Konoha's history that no one ever talks about."

"That's a damn big secret to keep." Koharu muttered.

"No bigger than the Nine-Tails was, really. And speaking of...."

"Sakura Haruno!"

Sakura's heart stopped for what felt like a long three seconds. As if to make up for the lost time, it came back pounding fast and hard in her chest.

That was Ino's voice.

Naruto and Sasuke, flanking her sides, were already turning around. Naruto commented something probably stupid to Sasuke, but Sakura couldn't hear what it was because something in her head was buzzing too loud. She turned. Ino was coming closer. Ino wasn't stopping -

Kakashi's hand landed on Sakura's shoulder and forcibly brought her out of her own head. She hadn't frozen like that in years, and for such a stupid reason!

"She doesn't look angry," Kakashi murmured in her ear, and then stepped away.

Sakura managed a tiny, apologetic smile. "Hi, Ino."

Ino's eyes widened. Sakura had just barely enough time to see her throat clench in the way that meant her voice was going to come out loud and high-pitched before Ino exploded with, "Hi?! Forehead-girl, you leave with your team for almost four years - you leave me to fend for myself with a bunch of boys, and Hinata not that she talks much, and then you come back with this crazy story about the Hokage, all super-powerful, and all you can say to me is hi?"

"This one's all yours," Naruto commented, slapping Sakura on the back and then hiding behind her.

Sakura sighed. "Look, Ino - "

"Forget that, you're coming with me." Ino reached out and latched on to Sakura's forearm, started to pull her away, "I want to hear everything that happened - "

Ino stopped abruptly, looking at the white-knuckled grip on her wrist. She looked up to see Sasuke's cold expression.

"You shouldn't just grab people." Sasuke told her in a low voice.

"Okay," Ino replied carefully, releasing Sakura's arm. Sasuke let hers go immediately.

"Eheheh, that's why we don't let him out that often." Naruto interjected into the tense scene. "Sasuke's still not really a people person. Or an animals person. In fact, when we find something he does like it'll be a miracle. I'll declare it a village holiday!"

Sakura laughed softly and dispelled the last of the tension. "Hey, Ino, why don't you walk with us? I can tell you whatever you want to know."

Ino eyed Sasuke again, but apparently decided that she wasn't going to let him scare her off. "Sure. Okay, first - have you noticed how Naruto looks really similar to the Fourth Hokage?"

"Yeah, about that - "

Naruto let the two girls get ahead of them, dropping back to walk beside Sasuke. "Hey," he said quietly, "You gotta be more careful 'bout scaring people. It was funny out there, but it's just gonna make things real awkward real fast here."

Sasuke just stared off to the side and grunted. Naruto understood then that Sasuke hadn't even meant to do it; it had been a reflexive action, and not being able to stop it in time made Sasuke angry at himself.

"Anyway, no harm done. Ino's used to you being an anti-social bastard - or at least she used to be." Naruto threw one arm around Sasuke's shoulders and dragged his head down so he could mess up the other boy's hair. Sasuke snarled and shoved Naruto off, but since he didn't follow it up with a punch and an all-out brawl, Naruto knew that Sasuke had accepted it as the reassurance he had meant it to be.

Following silently along behind his team, Kakashi allowed himself a satisfied smirk. Only in his wildest dreams had he imagined that his team could become this, and watching it was every reward he needed.

4th of January, 66 f.K.

Sakura slid the note into the secret panel compartment at the back of the desk drawer, but left the compartment's door slightly ajar when she closed the drawer. She froze at the sound of footsteps outside the office door.

The wandering guard passed without looking in.

She breathed a sigh of relief at the same time her partner did, sharing a grin with him. He was a second-year genin who had decided to specialize in forging, which made him perfect for a low-risk insertion mission. It was good training for him.

And good for her reputation to be working with trainees.

Ex-filtration was easier than its counterpart, since most of the nobleman's house-guards were facing the wrong direction to catch them at this point. Sakura and Raku Nishikawa made it out and met up with Jounin Akane at an outdoor ramen stand, as planned.

"How'd it go?" Anuro asked around a mouthful of noodles. She clearly hadn't been too worried about her apprentice to eat.

Sakura clapped Raku on the shoulder encouragingly. "Faster handwriting analysis and integration than I could have done. And he even noticed the extra curl the noble puts in the middle of his signatures to trip-up forgers."

"How long did it take for the copy?"

Sakura considered. "About twenty minutes. Decent enough, since he was working from scratch."

Anuro nodded and slurped the last of her ramen. She smiled at Raku. "How do you think you did?"

Raku flushed. "I could have written faster if I wasn't so nervous about the guards."

His sensei laughed. "That's a problem all of us have in the beginning, kid. Anyway, the document is planted and it'll be found tomorrow when the police in this town raid that guy's house. You did make sure it would be found, right?"

"Oh yeah, they'd have to be seriously incompetent to not find it." Sakura assured. "Anyway, one of them is on the client's payroll and he's been told exactly where to look, so: mission accomplished!"

Naruto surveyed the genin team clustered in front of him. The two girls had their heads bent together, whispering to each other about topics that Naruto didn't particularly want to overhear, and the boy standing in front of them had his arms crossed and a surly look on his young face.

Naruto's best friend was Sasuke Uchiha. Some grumpy thirteen-year-old was like an adorable blast from the past.

"Alright, your usual sensei overdid it on a solo mission so he's in the hospital recovering under the old lady's warm and tender care. So I'll be taking care of you for this mission. Uh, what are your names?"

"You don't even know our names?" The boy snorted, "Some ninja you must be. Aren't you still classified as genin? Are you even qualified to be our teacher?"

Naruto scowled; his technical rank was a point of controversy. "Yeah, I'm still 'technically' a genin, but that's because I was off getting super-special secret training for a while so I couldn't take any of the tests to get promoted. Anyway, rank has little to do with ability. Hasn't your sensei taught you that yet?"

Kakashi had gone into this in detail when Naruto expressed dismay that when they returned surely half of their class would be chuunin, and they would still be genin.

The kid, though, was shaking his head. The girls had stopped their whispering and were paying attention.

Naruto rubbed his hands together; he did so love sharing knowledge. He sat down on the short grass of the training field, waving his hands for the genin to do the same. "Alright, here it is: We've got basic ranks like genin, chuunin, and jounin, and then these side-ranks like special jounin, ANBU, and enjo-nin. Basic genin is like foot-soldiers or people who aren't ready to take command of a group. Chuunin is like a powered-up genin; they're mostly stronger, but more importantly they can be trusted to take command of a group of genin or civilians and lead them well enough.

"See, you've got the command ranks like that, but there's also power classes. Like your missions are ranked from D to A, ninja are ranked like that too but it doesn't have much to do with command rank. So you could potentially be an A-class ninja but only be a genin because no one wants to put you in charge of people. There isn't a reverse though; you can't be a D-class jounin.

"Because, see, at that level it doesn't matter how great a leader you are. Would you follow orders from a civilian just because you know he's won a ton of battles in the past? Nah, you'd tell him to sit down and try not to get killed. Because you gotta be strong - people respect strength. That's why the Hokage's supposed to be the strongest ninja in the village, as well as being a good leader. If he wasn't strong then no one would take him seriously."

Naruto stopped, hand coming down from an expansive gesture at the Hokage tower. He turned back to the genin to see how his speech was being received.

All three of them were gazing raptly. One of the girls had a pad of paper out and was taking notes.

The other girl raised her hand like she was back in a classroom; fighting down a flush of embarrassed pleasure, Naruto nodded at her.

"What rank are you, then? My dad told me yesterday that you're the container for the Nine-tailed Demon."

Naruto made a face. "Well, usually I'd say A-class since that's mostly true. But I'm only A-class when I'm using just my own power. I have the ability to access the Fox's power too, which bumps me up into S-class."

"Wait what's S? I've only heard of A, B, C, and D." the boy broke in.

Naruto rubbed the back of his head and then decided that they'd be told eventually, anyway. "S-class ninja and S-rank missions are above A. S-class means flee-on-sight, do not engage unless ordered to or unless backed up by a full team. Kages are S-class; certain people in the village are S-class. It's not as precise a ranking as the other ones because it's a catch-all for beings that are too powerful to fit into the normal class system.

"S-rank missions, on the other hand, is a catch-all for missions that are too high-profile, secret, dangerous, or brutal for normal teams to take on. The ANBU were created to deal with S-rank missions. ANBU can be any class; they just have to have the mental stability to take on S-rank missions. That's also why ANBU identities are secret, and a stint in ANBU usually doesn't last longer than six months. ANBU work in small teams or alone to do the wet work, with anywhere from one to five enju-nin doing the support work that a bigger team would usually do for themselves."

The girl who was taking notes flipped up to an earlier page, frowned to herself, and looked up. "You told us about ANBU and I know that enju-nin are non-combatant support staff, but what about special jounin?"

"Oh yeah! Special jounin is the rank given to someone who can take command of chuunin, like a regular jounin, but isn't really up to that class yet. It's an almost Konoha-exclusive rank, since the other villages don't think it's that great of an idea. Anyway, basically it means that your personal abilities aren't that great but the Hokage himself has recognized that you're great at strategy and tactics and stuff, so he's given you a special rank that means you get to lead ninja that are technically a lot stronger than you. And if a special jounin is leading a mission but his subordinates don't want to follow his orders because he's one of the weakest on the team, then it's the same as them saying that they doubt their Hokage; so it doesn't go over real well."

Naruto's gaze flicked over the kids, heart warming with an indescribable emotion. This teaching gig wasn't bad at all.

He leapt up, exclaiming, "Alright, so who wants to learn a cool jutsu?"

"Backup one and two, sign in." A woman ordered over the radio line.

"In position."

"Ready and waiting, comms."

"Strike, are you ready?"

Sasuke clicked the radio twice, belatedly remembered that this ANBU enju-nin team wouldn't know that that was his usual 'ready' signal, and then muttered, "Ready." into the ear-piece.

"Strike, you are cleared to target."

'Target' was the governor of this prospering town on the edge of Fire Country. The man was tall and classically attractive, and mostly well-liked, but he'd done some unsavory things to get his town to its current state. Someone wanted him dead; more than dead, really, since the mission objective stated 'brutal public execution' as the required manner of death.

Sasuke took a deep breath.

He launched off the roof of the building and aimed for the middle of the governor's bodyguards. He kicked two of them into the ground and made them stay there, then whirled on the last two with the fire-jutsu already forming in his hands. They flew back, the smell of burnt flesh beginning to saturate the air.

That had taken a precious two seconds; the target had almost recovered. Sasuke took one quick step up to the man amidst the growing shouts of townspeople who finally realized something was happening. Without a pause or hitch in his movements he plunged a lightning-coated hand into the man's chest cavity and brought it out again holding something hard and dark red.

Sasuke turned to let the civilians see the madly grinning fox mask, the wide-open eye-holes that displayed his Sharingan, the black-clothed figure of the truly monstrous ninja. Slowly, he put the human heart into one of the pouches on his leg.

Someone on the busy street retched loudly.

Sasuke brought his hands together and Body-Flickered away, adding a fire effect to it instead of the usual leaves. He met up with his support team minutes later, in a copse of trees outside the town.

Sparrow, who had been the woman directing communications, looked a little shaken by something. Sasuke's head tilted as he tried to figure it out; and then he realized that she was refusing to look at him and he knew what it was.

"Uh... what are you gonna...." Pig started to say, and trailed off when Sasuke flipped his mask to the side.

He put his hand in his pocket and grimaced as he brought out the bleeding heart. Sasuke dropped it unceremoniously, nudged it under some bushes for the animals to eat, then turned back to his team.

He raised an eyebrow. "Scroll said 'brutal'."

Mongoose started cackling. "Oh, I like this kid!"

10th of January, 66 f.K.

"I'd say Jiraiya left this one almost too late," Naruto muttered to Sakura, who nodded decisively. She would know better than he did; Jiraiya told her almost everything nowadays.

She replied in a tone just as low, "He wanted us to take care of it. Provided that we got our pardons, of course."

Naruto grinned. "As if there was ever a question! Hey, guys, how was the scouting?"

Team Eight had just returned from their part of the mission, scouting out the camp of four missing-nin who had banded together and were trying to set up a base of operations on the border between Wind and Fire Country.

Kiba stretched widely, trying to insinuate that it had been an easy job. "They got a typical set-up. They're in one of the limestone caves in that cliff-face over there. Was a back escape-hatch, but Shino dropped some bugs there so anyone trying to use it isn't going to get far. They've got a trap-line perimeter, but I think we marked or disabled most of them. Seems like these guys are barely B-class."

Naruto treated them to a feral grin and shot a look at Sasuke. "Sounds good. Alright, here's the plan: we go in, you don't. Unless someone dies." Kiba looked about to protest, so Naruto squinted at him and continued, "I'm serious. We got a team dynamic, I know how my team moves. If you guys jump in, we'll probably just be in each other's way. Plus, four versus six isn't really fair now is it?"

"Seven," Kiba insisted, putting a hand on Akamaru's head.

"Seven," Naruto corrected.

"Fine. Whatever. Call when you need help, we'll come if we're not too busy sitting on our asses playing card games." Kiba flopped down on to a protruding tree root and pulled out an actual pack of cards. Expressionless as ever, Shino sat too and Hinata smiled softly at them.

"We'll be here if you need us," she assured softly.

Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura jumped into the tree branches and set off for the camp. Along the way Naruto signed to Sasuke, who caught his eye and nodded; Team Eight was in fact following them.

As long as they stayed back, Naruto didn't care.

They arrived at the cliff face and the tall fissure there. Naruto signalled Sakura, who dropped to and then into the ground. The world paused for a second, as though the forest held its breath.

The cave exploded.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. Naruto loved to initiate battles with his clone explosions. He caught sight of one of the ninja trying to slip away from the dust cloud, half-camouflaged by the dust.

He dropped to the ground and chased, catching up rapidly. The ninja ducked Sasuke's kunai, whirled to throw one of his own, and opened up on a water jutsu.

Sasuke sidestepped both attacks and drew his sword. The other ninja wasn't fast enough to keep a gap between them, and soon found himself trying to parry a skilled swordsman with his kunai. Sasuke wasn't having any trouble with the fight and it would be over in a matter of minutes, but he still took the opportunity when a three-pronged kunai went sailing over his head. He swapped with it, placing himself behind the man - and Naruto in front of him.

Naruto stepped back to avoid the sword bursting through the ninja's chest. He looked over the dead man's head at Sasuke. "I got one and Sakura caught this one who tried to burrow away. You seen the fourth?"

Sasuke pulled his sword out and flicked some of the blood off of it. He tilted his head at the cliff.

"Might be under the rubble," Naruto agreed, turning as well. The cliff crumbled as they looked. "Is that a - "

Naruto's question was swallowed up by the wall of sound emanating from the creature that was pulling itself out of the ruined cliff. Rocks crashed - Sasuke spared a thought to hope Sakura had been well clear - and with a final massive grunt the thing was freed. There was a humanoid figure on its head, kneeling as though exhausted.

"This is ridiculous," Naruto huffed, his tone a little desperate. "Who the hell summons pangolins?"

The armored creature was as tall as Fire Country's trees, its biggest plates of armor as long as a man's leg. It looked around until it spotted two blood-spattered enemies ready to be defeated.

"What do pangolin summons even fight with - oh, HELL NO - " Naruto jumped away from the long, weaponized tongue that flicked out of the beast's mouth. He was not going to get eaten again.

Naruto glanced over at Sasuke who, because he was an absolute bastard, was on the edge of actual laughter. Naruto growled and put his hands together.

About a hundred, he thought grimly. That's not overkill, right?

A hundred explosive clones popped into existence, and Sasuke dashed away. All but one of Naruto jumped onto the pangolin and affixed himself to the scales with sticky chakra.

The world went white and deaf for a little while.

When sense returned a little, Naruto saw the pangolin curled up defensively, still intact but for some singeing, and Sakura standing in front of him.

"You're going to have to get eaten again." She told him.

"Like hell I am." Naruto started drawing on the Fox. "I'll punch it in the eye, fucking watch me. Getting eaten, no way."

Sakura sighed and downed a chakra pill for the inevitable healing jutsu she was going to have to perform. Sasuke dropped in next to her, considered the way Naruto was having trouble getting the pangolin to stay still long enough to punch it properly, and then said, "I'm gonna go for the summoner."

"Yes, let's," she agreed.

They scaled the beast's back while Naruto did an exemplary job of distracting it. When they reached the back of the neck, Sakura frowned at the scales and started pulling at the sharp edges, thankful for the gloves she wore. "Might be able to pull one of these out and get through," she said, and waved for Sasuke to go on ahead.

Sasuke crested the creature's bent head, stuck to it with two feet and one hand because it was swinging wildly up here trying to dodge about six of Naruto. The summoner had recovered a little and seemed to be trying to line up a jutsu to fire at the clones.

"Hold still, Aku!" the summoner shouted.

"That's easy for you to say, you don't have this pest jumping at you!" the pangolin replied. "Ha! Go' 'im."

Well, that wasn't promising, Sasuke thought. The summoner was turning around.

Sasuke couldn't move fast enough over the scales; he lost most of the surprise he wanted, but still closed with the obviously exhausted ninja. The shinobi yelped as he dodged Sasuke's sword, and Aku said, "Hey!"

Aku started shaking wildly to buck Sasuke off, but Sasuke wasn't going to let that happen. He planted his feet firmly with chakra and sent more along the blade, gathering it as lightning -

The summoner's eyes went wide. He tried to dive off of the beast's head, but the lightning was already striking him. The massive Aku screamed at the same time, his body shaking with several muffled, explosive sounds. Sasuke turned around as the ninja's body fell to the ground, and saw Sakura helping Naruto out of a hole in the pangolin's scales.

"Got eaten," Naruto mumbled, covered in blood. "Gave him some indigestion, though."

The pangolin disappeared from existence, dropping all three of them.

From the trees Kiba exclaimed, "This is the best day of my life."

16th of January, 66 f.K.

"Go," Sakura said, pressing the scroll into Naruto's hand. "We can hold them here, you know that, but they won't stop coming. They'll slow us down too much. You have to go, and don't stop."

It felt like it tore him in two, but Naruto knew she was right. He turned around - and ran away from the fight.

He heard that weirdo with the thick eyebrows shouting about youthfulness as he jumped into the fight, and then heard nothing but the branches whipping past and his own breath.

The scroll had to get to Wind Country, and Stone-nin had been hired to steal it.

"Is that the Yellow Flash?!"

Naruto didn't even think about it. He threw the spread of kunai and flashed to each of them, appearing before his pursuers, disabling them, and moving on. Probably two of the three were dead; he didn't have time to check, not if three had already escaped the fight that his team was supposed to be holding them at.

Only once more did Naruto find enemies. There was a team of five Stone ninja waiting at the border to Sand country. With a note of incredulity, Naruto recognized two of them as being part of a team he, Sasuke, and Sakura had assaulted one night years ago.

He could go around, Naruto supposed. Or....

The five Stone-nin were all on high alert for this second coming of Konoha's Yellow Flash. They watched every approach, every angle. They were prepared to meet that cunning man they had thought was dead.

Instead, over the hill between their team and River Country, a yellow tidal wave rose and fell.

Naruto would later consider it a personal best for several reasons. It was probably the most clones he'd ever made at once, in as many variations as he had ever been able to make. Some of the clones exploded; some were naked; some were naked and exploding; some were even more exciting to encounter.

Faced with roughly a thousand blondes of various gender and state of dress, the five Stone-nin wavered, then broke form and fled for home. When they arrived, they would report that Konoha's Yellow Flash had not returned; this was a whole new kind of monster.

And two of them would think that he looked really familiar for some reason.

Naruto didn't dispel the clones until he reached the Wind Country capitol city, Saharo, and then the soldiers on guard outside the Lord's city were treated to the singularly spectacular sight of a thousand men and women disappearing into smoke, leaving behind one ragged-looking young man holding a scroll.

They let him pass, which wasn't much of a decision considering that all involved knew they couldn't stop him.

Naruto strolled right up the steps to the Lord's palace and was greeted inside by some sort of lackey, who introduced himself with a judgmental sniff at Naruto's person.

"Here, this is for your Lord. It's that scroll he wasn't expecting 'til two days from now. I ran it here."

The man's eyebrows flew into his receding hairline. "We sent this message this morning."

Naruto looked back at the setting sun outside the palace's open double doors, and then turned back to the Lord's housekeeper, or whoever this guy had said he was. "Sorry it took so long, then," Naruto said, shrugging a little.

A soldier burst into the palace's huge main hall, panting. "Sir, there was an army at the gates but it just disappeared and it... looked... exactly like that guy."

The housekeeper raised an inquiring expression to Naruto, who shrugged again and explained, "I can make a lot of clones."


2nd of February, 66 f.K.

A cool breeze ruffled the leaves of the massive tree, bringing a chill even under the hot Fire Country sun. The susurrus of leaves almost sounded like voices whispering secrets.

Fitting enough for something grown of a traitor's deeds.

Naruto sat with his back against the tree's bark, facing the sharpness of the Memorial Stone. This was not the first time he had done this; he knew from experience that the massive tree was just south enough of the Stone that the day's sun never let the shadow touch the stone.

If it had, Naruto might have cut it down.

He heard two pairs of footsteps approaching from behind, but didn't get up or look around. Sasuke and Sakura stopped next to him.

"He had cells from the First Hokage in his arm," Naruto said conversationally, like that wasn't a horrifying prospect. "Jiraiya thinks he perfected it on sensei's friend Tenzo."

Sasuke grunted and sat down, staring steadfastly at the Memorial. Sakura sat too and leaned into Naruto's side.

"That's why the tree," Naruto continued, "At the end he lost control of it. So it fed on his chakra and it turn into this."

"Are we going to keep it? It's a nice tree," Sakura commented.

Naruto shrugged. "That's not my decision yet."

She huffed and Sasuke reached out to flick Naruto's ear. "It basically is, you know. Thanks Sasuke."

Sasuke hummed; Naruto rubbed his ear and gave her a chagrined smile. "Yeah, I guess we'll keep it. Be a shame to kill a nice tree like this. And he was a real bastard but... he was trying to do the right thing. He just didn't know what it was. Didn't have friends like you guys to remind him."

Sasuke made a disbelieving sound, turning to stare at Naruto.

Naruto laughed, "Okay, so the reminding goes both ways. That's why it's good we're a team. Always, right?"

He pulled both of them in with an arm around their shoulders, then looked up and said louder, "Get down here, sensei, you too!"

Kakashi dropped out of the tree's higher branches, his face as impassive as ever under the mask. "Eh, this isn't really my - " Kakashi's eye flew wide as he found himself shoved by a Naruto clone into the group hug. Both Sakura and Sasuke latched on and didn't let him get away.

"Team!" Naruto crowed happily, and tipping backwards brought them all tumbling to the ground.

3rd of February, 66 f.K.

The picture was set in a plain wooden frame, a good size to sit on a desk and be out of the way but still appreciated. Its subject was a young blond-haired boy with whisker-like scars on his cheeks sitting on the shoulders of a wrinkled old man in white robes. The boy was wearing a wide pyramidion hat slightly askew on his head, the cloth draped over it spilling onto one shoulder. He was grinning so delightedly that his eyes were closed; the old man's smile was smaller but filled with absolute adoration as he looked up at the boy hanging on to his shoulders.

Naruto's eyes burned with the memory, but there weren't any tears left to be shed for this. Instead there was an immense gratitude: that he had been able to know Hiruzen Sarutobi; that the man had loved him this much.

"I saw the D-rank to clean out your apartment come over the mission desk, so I went before the genin team could get in to clean up your apartment. There wasn't much there to save, but there was this." Iruka handed Naruto the wrapped frame, and smiled. "I knew you'd be coming back."

Naruto reflected that Iruka was forever handing him precious things.

It hadn't been something he was concerned with four years ago; twelve-year-old children didn't think to grab pictures of the past against the pain of forgetting in the future.

Sakura's voice disturbed his reverie. "Naruto? Are you ready? The sun's starting to set."

Naruto put the picture frame back on the desk and stood up. "I was ready this morning," he replied, thinking ahead to put the past out of his mind. "But no, you people say this thing is usually done at night."

They left the darkening office and walked through quiet halls.

Sakura laughed softly. "Well, we are ninja."

"Yeah," Naruto nodded, "Yeah, we really are. Did you ever think we wouldn't make it?" He held the door for her and they stepped into the dim light of dusk.

Sakura shrugged. "A couple times, here and there. I'd have to be you to never have any second thoughts."

Away from the heat of the day trapped by buildings and roads, the wooded training grounds they passed through grew progressively cooler.

"Do you really think I never had any doubts?" Naruto asked honestly.

Sakura looked down, and then at him out of the corner of her eye. She smiled. "Maybe you did. But it never mattered, did it? You always do what you have to, Naruto."

Sasuke peeled away from the shadow of a tree as they passed it and fell into step with them. He nodded at Naruto. "Who's going to hold on to that tonight?"

"Well, I just got it! Maybe I'll keep it on, Sasuke-bastard." Naruto grinned.

Sasuke snorted. "You'll be even easier to fight with half your field of vision obscured like that, but suit yourself."

"Ha! You'd like that. Nah, Jiraiya's gonna hold on to it for me. He's not participating."

"Unlike every other ninja in the village," Sasuke muttered. He stopped talking when they reached the fence restricting Training Ground Forty-four; Sasuke didn't really like speaking around other people, and there was a lot of people gathered here.

"Hey, old lady!" Naruto greeted.

Tsunade growled, "Shut the hell up, brat. Bad enough I'm going to have to heal all you assholes after this. If anyone kills each other I swear to the dark god I'm gonna bring 'em back just to kill 'em again."

Several of Konoha's jounin edged away from her.

"So how 'bout a three second head-start, guys?" Naruto asked.

Nearly every ninja in Konoha had turned out for this, so to them three seconds seemed a little slim. They agreed anyway; they were shinobi and knew to take every advantage.

Naruto pointed, "Except for you two. You don't go in 'til three minutes are up. They know how I work," he added as an explanation for why he'd singled out his two teammates.

He went up to the gate into the Forest of Death and turned with one hand on the latch. He shot them a wild grin. "Catch me if you can!"

Naruto vanished into the Forest of Death, and the night paused. "Naruto!" Sakura called exasperatedly.

From the forest came a distant "Oops!" and something whirled out of the gloom. Jiraiya put his hand up and caught the red and white blur.

"The coronation has begun!" Jiraiya shouted, holding up the Hokage's hat. "Go get your new Hokage!"