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Of The Leaf

Chapter Text

3rd of March, 62 f.K. (foundation of Konoha)

Kakashi was at the Memorial Stone when he got the news, waiting for a reasonable amount of time to pass before he went to meet up with his little team. He'd already finished updating his fallen friends on what had happened to him since yesterday - a few observations on his team, the strange dream he had last night, and the usual silent vows to do better by his living comrades than he had by his dead ones.

He'd then started thinking about what he would be teaching his genin today and followed a few tangential thoughts into a meditative tranquility of thinking about nothing at all. This pleasant haze was pierced by the arrival of Tenzo, who said without waiting for a greeting, "Kakashi! Haven't you heard? The Hokage is dead!"

Kakashi's first and embarrassing response had been a blunt denial, thankfully silent. His mind pushed back against the words, reflexively denying them. He'd known the Hokage for his entire life. It was like someone had told him the moon had gone missing: He didn't look up to check just in case; he knew they were lying.

Then sense returned and he knew that Tenzo wouldn't lie about such a thing; if he said it, it was true.

Stroke in the night, Tenzo explained after Kakashi's blunt, "How?" Happened too fast for the ANBU guards outside his house to get the real medic-nin in time. Painless as any ninja's death could be.

Tenzo's eyes slid away even as he spoke.

Kakashi's one visible eye narrowed slightly. Tenzo could lie without a single visible tell on any day of the week. He wanted Kakashi to ask.

Ask what?

"Who were the ANBU on guard?"

"Tiger, Bear, and Snake."

They all joined up after Kakashi left. He shouldn't know who they were.

He knew anyway.

He closed his eyes. Tiny amounts of adrenaline left his heart beating faster and an ache in his chest. "It's Root."

Kakashi showed up to the team meeting two hours late, said, "The Hokage is dead. You have the day off." and then flickered away without allowing himself to register their expressions. He spent the day collecting information and gossip, and was the eighth person in the village to know that Danzo had been appointed interim Hokage, until the replacement could be voted in. Kakashi learned this from Inuzuka Tsume at four in the afternoon, right as the Council let out from the decision. She snarled it to him on her way to the nearest exit.

Kakashi did not allow himself the reaction he dearly wanted to have; instead he went home and started trying to predict the future. He took these things as facts he knew without a doubt:

One: Danzo would not be giving up the hat unless it was pried out of his cold dead fingers.

Two: He would always act toward the greater good of Konoha.

Three: He would not acknowledge any pre-existing boundaries if they interfered with this greater good.

Four: Danzo would not be caught.

The optimist's scenario was that Danzo would lead the village well, raise Academy standards, change a few minor laws and rules, covertly get his hands on the Byakugan and the Sharingan bloodlines, and raise an army of emotionless red- and white-eyed children to die for the village.

The pessimist's scenario included a lot more gore, death, and brainwashing than the former's, but ran along the same basic lines. The point being that neither were acceptable outcomes.

Kakashi wasted a half hour trying to think of what he could do to protect Sasuke from Danzo's madness and Naruto from Danzo's brainwashing. He could perhaps protect one of them. Possibly. But he was eventually forced to admit that he had no way to protect both.

Danzo would have either Sasuke or Naruto. Kakashi... would have to choose.

Danzo would approach Naruto with kindness and acknowledgment, instantly earning the boy's trust. He'd offer special training and Naruto would accept. With even the faintest praise and encouragement, he'd drive himself into the ground for Danzo. He'd accept dangerous missions. Danzo would tell him it was wrong to mourn enemy ninja, to care about anyone who did not hail from Konoha for at least two generations. Naruto wouldn't accept it at first but eventually would come to accept it as a personal truth. He was, in Kakashi's opinion, far too manipulable.

The boy Kakashi had known would be obliterated.

On the other hand, Danzo would offer Sasuke power - plain and simple. He'd play on his arrogance. Danzo would instill some sort of kill-switch under false pretenses (always had to, with the unstable ones) and allow Sasuke to improve only so much that he didn't get frustrated. When he was able to father children, Danzo would introduce him to whatever kind of girl Sasuke turned out to like (many, many of those girls) and tell Sasuke this was how he would revive his clan. Perhaps Sasuke would even forget about killing his brother for a little while.

And when the first child developed red eyes (Danzo would make sure this happened young), Sasuke would die.

Kakashi tried. He tried to set aside his emotions and think objectively. Who truly needed to be saved? Naruto, for the sacrifice of his father and the debt Kakashi owed Sensei.

Sasuke, for the deaths of his entire family (Sakumo...) and the responsibility Kakashi owed a cousin of Obito.

He couldn't choose; he flipped a coin and didn't look at the result. He tipped a book off the shelf, thinking that if it landed open he'd go one way, closed he'd go the other - and he never assigned a name to either way. He tipped another book. The third one he threw across the room.

The shelf came crashing down. His table splintered down the middle. The couch flipped and slid into the front door, the wall developed eight new foot-sized holes. His entire arsenal of kunai wound up clustered in imaginary targets on the plaster. Kakashi finally paused with four shuriken between his fingers, drawn back to throw at the door to his bedroom.

He'd been reviewing his facts and their conclusions, searching for a loophole methodically even as the greater part of his brain was overwhelmed with mindless fury at the unfairness of the world.

At some point in his wondering, he'd had this thought: that he wished rogue jounin and their androgynous apprentices were still the only thing he had to worry about threatening his genin.

The thought was... unthinkable. It occurred to him in a bone-deep sense, his gut telling his head that it had a solution he wouldn't like. He put his apartment back in order mechanically, waiting for it to come to him. It did, and then he wanted to throw up.

Nowhere in Konoha was safe for Team Seven.

Nowhere in Konoha.

Naruto would be easiest to convince. All Kakashi had to do with him was ask, he was quite sure. Naruto could be stubborn but he'd recognized Kakashi as a superior easily enough. He wouldn't be stubborn without a reason.

Then again, Kakashi thought to himself dully, Naruto had been given a very good reason today.

How could he have forgotten? Naruto could count his precious people on one hand and have enough fingers left over to insult you with. He'd lost the first of them today, and Kakashi had taken all of two seconds and nine words to tell him so.

He watched Naruto scrub away tears onto an already soaked jacket sleeve. In the boy's other hand was a picture of a younger Naruto and the Third. Naruto had a devious, delighted grin on his face as he sat on the Hokage's shoulders, hands fisted in the man's hair, the wide hat slightly askew on his head. And the Third... was looking up at the boy with more love in his gaze than Kakashi could even imagine.

Kakashi was going to just leave and get Sasuke first instead. Then Naruto grunted in betrayed anger and threw the photo, frame and all, across the room. His eyes widened in fear the moment it left his hand. It hit the wall and fell, bouncing once to land upside down.

The boy was next to it immediately, picked it up as though it was made of gold. He looked once to make sure the glass wasn't cracked, and then cradled it to his chest and hugged it there. The crying began anew.

If Kakashi left Naruto right now, Minato would claw his way out of the Death god's stomach for the sole purpose of slitting his student's throat.

Kakashi let himself into the boy's apartment through the window he'd been spying through. Naruto didn't notice a thing until Kakashi called his name softly.

The boy looked up, and his face began to twist into that betrayed fury again. His whiskers looked a little darker, his pupils a little sharp.

Thinking fast or not really thinking at all, Kakashi hooked two fingers into his mask and pulled it down so that Naruto could be absolutely sure of the sincerity on his sensei's face as he knelt down to the boy's level and let out, "I am sorry for your loss."

Naruto sniffled a bit but was obviously unwilling to continue crying in front of his teacher. He loosed his grip on the picture frame slightly until it looked like he was just crossing his arms, and tried to hide the frame in his jacket. "What do you want?"

The first iteration of Kakashi's plan had included lying to Sasuke and Naruto about a mission, if only to get them out of the village quickly. That had been discarded quickly once he followed it to the logical conclusion that it would damage their trust for him in ways he didn't have time to fix. Whereas telling the truth might make an impression upon the boys, showing that he trusted them, and make them more compliant in the long run.

"With the Hokage's untimely death, some people have come to power who... do not have your best interests in mind. One person, specifically, the interim Hokage Danzo Shimura."

Naruto frowned, replying, "I met him earlier. He seemed okay."

Kakashi's eye narrowed. "Where?" he demanded.

"I was in Gramps' office. Remembering him. An old guy with an eyepatch came in. He was nice to me, and he even knew about the Wave mission; he said I did good." Another sniffle, more forceful. "Then he said he was taking up the hat for a little while. Keeping it warm for me."

Naruto may very well have been the first person in the village to know for certain who would wear the hat. Unexpected.

"Whatever he may have seemed," Kakashi began, "he is a skilled ninja and an even better liar. He knows that you contain the Nine Tails, and after the Wave mission he knows that you have access to its power." Kakashi moved a little closer and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. He knew how powerful touch could be. "Naruto, he would do his very best to turn you into a living weapon... and he is very good at it."

"But then I'd get stronger, wouldn't I?" Naruto shrugged him off and stepped back a little, glaring. "And I wouldn't do anything bad for him."

A smarter child, a less naive one at least, would see what Kakashi was trying to imply. "You would become unimaginably strong," Kakashi admitted, gathering the boy's attention. "but it would come at the cost of your nindo, your mind, your soul - everything you are. Danzo's operatives abandon all emotion and human ties. They are as monstrous as any demon; more so, because at least a demon acts to preserve itself. A Root operative would slit his own throat because Danzo told him to."

Naruto cried out in anger, "I would never do that!"

Kakashi was so close to convincing him of the truly extreme danger facing them. He'd tried the gentle approach; now he pulled his trump.

He said quietly, "A Root operative would kill his Hokage because Danzo told him to."

Naruto's jaw clicked shut. Kakashi saw the instant when it dawned on him, because his normally expressive face went entirely blank. He stared into the middle distance for a long few moments, and then met Kakashi's eye again.

Rather than asking how Kakashi knew, if Kakashi was sure - as the jounin thought he would - Naruto said, "Danzo is the Hokage now. That's treason."

Had Kakashi misjudged him? It was possible, but that wasn't a threat in Naruto's expression. Kakashi tested him with: "I think treason against a traitor doesn't count."

"How are you going to prove it?"

Kakashi was pleasantly surprised by this turn of events, until he remembered Mizuki and the circumstances of Naruto's graduation. Perhaps it was not so surprising that Naruto reacted to treason so much more seriously than he did most anything else.

"I can't," Kakashi admitted, shrugging a little helplessly. A breeze from the open window reminded him he still had his mask off, but he didn't bring it back up. "Danzo is more careful than I am capable of countering. I can't catch him, I can't prove a damn thing. And if I breathe a word of this to anyone, I'll be dead before the sun sets on the day."

"So, then, what are we going to do?"

"I am still a loyal shinobi of the Leaf. If it was only myself I had to protect, I would simply stay quiet and... endure." Kakashi sighed heavily, one hand rising to the Leaf insignia on his headband. "All men die; not even Danzo can outwit death. But there are some things I cannot stand for and some things I will go to any lengths to protect. I will not allow harm to befall my team when I could have prevented it.... Even if the actions I must take are otherwise inconceivable."

Naruto had remained uncharacteristically solemn for the entire conversation. His brow knotted together in thought. Finally he responded, "I don't know what you're trying to say."

Kakashi put his mask back on because he knew Naruto had a respect for the dramatic. "First, we're going to leave so you can get stronger - strong enough to protect yourself. Then, we're going to come back and kill the Hokage."

Naruto's face went blank again before a faint look of confusion made its way in. "But we can't leave Konoha. That would make us rogue-nin."

"Naruto." Kakashi made his one visible eye express every ounce of his intensity. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes." Naruto answered without hesitation.

Kakashi smiled. Even in this untenable situation, warmth pooled in his heart - curled up with fear, because what if he failed again? "Then trust that I have a plan. I can't explain everything tonight. We need to start moving soon. It's - hell, it's almost nine already." One of the gate guards changed at ten, and Kakashi was not absolutely confident in his ability to get his two students past the fresh replacement. "We still have to get Sasuke."

Naruto nodded. "And then Sakura. They're in danger too, right? 'Cuz we're a team."

Kakashi blinked.

"Actually, Sakura will be fine. Danzo has no reason to care about her. He'll want the Uchiha bloodline, but there's nothing special about Sakura."

He had spoken without thinking, spoken as if to an equally logical mind. He blamed it on Naruto's unusual seriousness. He had forgotten a key piece of Naruto's nindo - and his own, as well: Never leave a teammate behind. Kakashi was so focused on the danger he had managed to forget the bonds of teammates.

"She is special!" Naruto roared. He jumped up; the frame in his jacket fell out and thumped against his bare foot. He didn't seem to notice. "Of course she's coming with! What if Danzo tries to - I don't know - tries to brainwash her like you said he would to me?! We can't just leave her!"

"Naruto, she's got parents and a life here. If we leave Danzo won't have a reason to bother her - " Aside from this powerful crush the Nine-Tails' container harbored for her " - and, since she'll be perfectly safe here, I can't put her in danger out there when it's completely unnecessary." Kakashi tried logic, which had been so persuasive just a few moments before.

He saw Kushina in the set of Naruto's jaw and Minato in the shape of his shoulders as his arms folded. He saw that Naruto would not be swayed. If came to leaving her and surviving or staying and dying, Naruto would damn well stay.

Kakashi's eyes closed as he sent a prayer up to the heavens, for patience and strength. "Okay, we'll get Sakura. After Sasuke."

"Swear?" Naruto squinted suspiciously at him.

Kakashi felt a little offended, considering Naruto had just sworn that he trusted Kakashi. "Yes! Now start packing. A change of clothes - no ramen! - yes, all your weapons, uh, what the hell kind of hat is that? Are those teeth?"

The village was unusually subdued, the air heavy with palpable mourning. The only ninjas traveling over the rooftops were the ones going about necessary duties; the rest stayed home or walked to the bars to share their grief in silence.

The Hokage had been so beloved.

Kakashi had Naruto store his pack behind an A/C unit on his apartment building's roof to avoid the questioning should they be seen. Then he led Naruto on a far more winding route to the Uchiha district; not over the roofs but instead bouncing between walls over alleys. Anyone looking over the village from a higher vantage point wouldn't be able to track them easily.

They made it to Sasuke's house, where the lights were still on, without incident.

"Stay here. I'm going to do a sweep around the area." Kakashi ordered Naruto into a tree.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "We haven't even done anything bad yet, sensei. I don't think there are any enemies in Konoha."

Yet, went unsaid. They'd have an enemy in every ninja of the Leaf soon.

Kakashi had been gone for a solid fifteen minutes and Naruto was beginning to get antsy in the tree, wondering what could be taking so long. Three times he talked himself out of going to look for his teacher, each time remembering the forceful look Kakashi had given him right before leaving.

His sensei was leaving the village to protect him. The least Naruto could do was show he was grateful for it; wouldn't make Kakashi regret it.

Kakashi returned with Sasuke already in tow, the boy looking a little disgruntled but otherwise as impassive as ever.

"Idiot," Sasuke muttered in greeting, which Naruto returned with a purposefully sunny, "Bastard."

Sasuke was also carrying his pack, Naruto saw. He looked questioningly at Kakashi, tilting his head towards it.

"We're running out of time. Naruto, go get your pack and meet us at Sakura's."

Kakashi watched Naruto bounce around a corner just below rooftop-level, a tiny thread of concern worming its way through his conviction. They weren't yet in enemy territory... but they soon would be where no one could go off alone.

Kakashi glanced back at Sasuke to gauge his reaction. The boy had been worryingly easy to convince in leaving the village for the time being. He reflected that Sasuke actually had even fewer precious people than Naruto, for all that he could have had as many friends as he wanted. He was already isolated, unattached to the village, except by abstract loyalty and the promise of training to get stronger.

"Let's go," Kakashi commanded, leading Sasuke to Sakura's house with her emotional connections. Hopefully Naruto wouldn't insist on staying if they gave Sakura the chance to come and she refused.

"When we go in, stay beside me and don't say anything." Kakashi instructed. Sad to say it, but Sasuke's presence undeniably increased the odds that Sakura would come with; him opening his mouth at the wrong time would not.

"Hn." Sasuke grunted, which was neither a yes nor a no.

"Sasuke. That is an order."

He was aware that Sasuke shot him a strange look, almost frowning, almost respectful.

"Yes sir," Sasuke answered, his tone making it evident that he was surprised to see Kakashi's lazy facade fall away.

Then they arrived. Sakura's window was closed, curtains drawn shut; Kakashi dropped to the ground to pick up a few pebbles and toss them, automatically forming a friend signal even though she wouldn't know that.

Sakura opened the window a few moments later and leaned out, whispering, "Ino?" into the gathering night. She jerked back with an aborted sound of surprise when Kakashi stuck himself to the wall outside her window and leaned into view. "What are you doing here, Kakashi-sensei? Sasuke!"

"Sakura, we're short on time. You, Sasuke, and Naruto are all in danger in the village now that the Hokage is dead." Kakashi leaned into the room intently. "Do you trust me?"

Sasuke, when faced with this question, had regarded him in silence for a few seconds before finally nodding as if unable to say it aloud. Kakashi had liked his suspicion almost as much as Naruto's instant acceptance.

Sakura blinked and answered, "With what?"

Kakashi's eyebrows rose. "That's actually a good answer. Do you trust me with your life and safety, and those of your teammates?"

Sakura nodded. "Of course."

"I can protect all of you, but we have to leave the village. Go AWOL. We'll be traitors... but I have a plan for how we can come back. We're going to leave so you all can become strong enough to protect yourselves."

Sakura looked between Kakashi and Sasuke with wide eyes as she processed it. Kakashi could see the internal conflict raging. Sakura, more than either of his other students, was both smart enough to know how difficult it would be to return, and also had enough binding her here to want to do so.

"Just - how long will we be gone?" she asked hesitantly.

Kakashi had run these numbers over in his head four times during the planning stage. "No less than three years, no more than five."

She inhaled softly, let loose a quiet "Oh." If she went with them, she'd be fifteen the next time she saw her best friend or her parents again. "I'm in danger here in Konoha?"

"By proxy for the most part. Naruto and Sasuke are the real targets, but someone could want to use you to get to Naruto," Kakashi answered truthfully. Then he added, "There's a chance that nothing could happen to you. They might leave you in peace. I wouldn't even offer to bring you with us, but a team should always be given at least a choice to stick together."

Unexpectedly, with those words Kakashi saw Sakura's resolve harden. Well, he was learning all sorts of things about what made his team tick today.

Naruto arrived at about the same time Sakura finished packing. He had traded his usual orange for darker clothes without even needing to be told. Sakura too had chosen shorts and a tank top rather than her dress; only Sasuke hadn't needed to mix up his wardrobe.

"Let's go," Kakashi said.

A cool breeze throughout the warm night rustled the leaves on the trees, stirring up a roar of sound. In the darkness, an owl of a species native to the area hooted.

A dark shadow darted over the massive wall. It landed on the other side among the bushes at the edge of the treeline and without pause dived farther in. When it stopped, well into cover, a second shadow detached itself from the first, smaller in figure.

"I've got to go back to get Sasuke now. I'll signal again when we're coming over." Kakashi murmured to Sakura and Naruto, thinking idly that he would need to teach them shinobi hand-signs soon. If they were going to be on the run for a long time, they would need to be able to speak to each other silently.

His two students nodded grimly. None of them had liked that they would need to cling to Kakashi to make it over, but the necessity was clear. Kakashi returned with Sasuke a few tense minutes later, who in turn dropped off his teacher's back almost before the man stopped. Sasuke had liked it the least of the three.

"Naruto, how many shadow clones can you make?" Kakashi asked.

Naruto rocked back and forth on his heels in thought. "Don't know really - a lot. I pushed a whole lot into it when I went against Mizuki and it felt like I just went for a really long run, but also like I could've done more, too. At least four hundred."

Kakashi racked his estimation of Naruto's chakra reserves up a little.

"Make as many as you can; have them pair off into fours and henge into myself, Sakura, and Sasuke. You'll be laying false tracks. Hopefully that will give us the head start we need."

"Heh, this'll be great!" Naruto put his hands into the seal, and instantly the forest around them filled with a lot of blond hair and personality.

Kakashi was briefly worried about Naruto's ability to organize himself without shouting orders, but was pleasantly surprised when the clones obediently grabbed each other into pairs and then said pairs joined up to make four. Then, they lined up and from left to right transformed into everyone else.

Without a word, the clone teams dispersed into the night, going every which way. A hundred Team Sevens all leaving a chakra trail for the hunter-nin to track.

"Naruto, can you continue making teams of four as we go?"

"Sure thing. That was nothing, I must have gotten better since Mizuki." Naruto gave his signature cheery grin at the thought.

Soon, Kakashi knew, it would hit the three of them what they had just done. Leaving one's village was not a decision to be taken lightly; nor were its consequences all immediately visible. Kakashi had a plan but no guarantee that it would work - no guarantees at all, in fact, except for one: History was going to repeat.

This team will live.

Chapter Text

29th of May, 62 f.K.

The bright sun beat down with a merciless heat. The open grass in front of Iruka nearly shimmered in the bright light. Thankfully he could instruct this group from the shade of a tree.

"You're doing well, Hana, but more power! Shichi, please, pay more attention to your aim." With these corrections made, Iruka settled back on his heels for the moment. Kunai practice was always a little nerve-wracking, especially with the young ones, but these days some classes were more relaxing than others. This was the A class, the most promising students. Iruka had been hesitant about the new academy ranking and stratification system, but it seemed to be working out. His own workload had been halved by handing off the C class and lower to genin who were off mission duty because of injuries or the like.

Sometimes he did think of Naruto, though. Naruto would have been in the C class. He might never have become a ninja with this ranking system.

"Sensei! Shichi is bothering me!"

Iruka was yanked from his pondering and went to separate Shichi and Hanabi, before the latter became angry enough to stab him. When that was handled, he looked around again, automatically checking the roster in his head for the civilian-raised kids to see if they needed extra help. Then he remembered - there were none in the A class.

At the end of practice he assigned an hour's homework throwing kunai. None of his students would come back tomorrow saying they couldn't complete it because their parents didn't want them throwing knives at home. The A class advanced faster than any other.

Iruka didn't like it any better than the old system, though; didn't feel as if it prepared his kids any better.

Well, on the bright side, at least academy pay had increased.

After class Iruka headed for his favorite ramen stand.

He wondered if Naruto was still alive.

5th of June, 62 f.K.

When Ino showed up for training on Monday, she found that she was not the first one there.

Shikamaru had been in that spot in that same position yesterday when she left. He might have just slept there. He rolled his head to look at her and grunted in greeting.

Ino suppressed the instinctual irritation at his laziness. "What brings you here so early?"

"Mom and Dad were fighting. You heard the Hokage wants to restart the police force? My dad wants to join, since he doesn't do regular missions anymore. Mom says she'd rather he restart doing missions."

"Why's that? Seems like being a policeman would be less dangerous than going out on missions."

"'S not the danger she's worried about. If he's police, he has to arrest people. If he arrests people, they're gonna start hating him. She's afraid of what it'll do for the clan. 'Specially if not many other clans join."

Ino nodded thoughtfully. "My dad wants to volunteer, too. I guess he's thought of it, he just doesn't care. Or he doesn't think it'll be bad."

Chouji arrived then, complaining loudly about the lack of restaurants open at this early hour. Trailing after him in a cloud of smoke was Asuma. As he approached his cigarette ran out. He used the last embers of the dying one to light a new cig right away.

All three of his genin watched this happen in pensive silence. Asuma only chain-smoked this badly when there was something on his mind.

Their sensei exhaled heavily away from them and gestured for everyone to sit. Shikamaru sat up. "I'm sure by now you've all heard that the Hokage wants to restart the police force. It's... not something parents like to talk to their kids about, so you probably don't know the history of it."

Ino asked, "It has history? I thought it was just a bunch of ninja patrolling and making sure that other ninja didn't abuse the civilians."

Asuma sighed again. "Everything has history, this more than most. See, it was founded by the Second Hokage for the Uchiha - yeah, that Uchiha - as a sign of trust. You know, back when the bloodline clans had a lot to worry about not being accepted. Up until recently it was pretty much exclusively made up of people from the Uchiha clan. They did good work. Kept the peace between the ninja and the civilians." He paused to take another fast drag - despite his mild tone, he seemed worried. "It's important because every ninja village has to depend on at least some civilians for commerce, for the support structure. In return we protect them. The police force made them feel protected.

"Then the Uchiha massacre happened. What little of the police force was left - the clerks, the regular staff - fell apart. Couldn't keep going when the foundation was gone. And since then, no one has wanted to step into that role. The Hokage reviving it is a good thing. It should have been done a long time ago but we were all still mourning. "Now it's time to try again."

5th of June, 62 f.K.

"Just a little farther now, guys." Kurenai said encouragingly, leading her exhausted team home after a successful mission.

"Come on, Hinata, you heard Kurenai-sensei. We're almost there." Kiba, still a little hyped off his last soldier pill, circled Hinata. The girl had stopped and was frowning slightly, veins around her eyes visible.

Kurenai looked back, puzzled. Like all Hyuuga Hinata had been trained to flicker her Byakugan on and off again periodically while traveling. She must have seen something during a scan.

"What is it?" the jounin asked.

"There are two kunai in the roots of that bush over there, and three more spread around this area."

Shino buzzed slightly as he released insects to investigate his surroundings. Kiba's head tilted as he and Akamaru sniffed around.

"Hey, it kinda smells like there's fresh blood around here. Someone tried to disperse it, but an Inuzuka's nose knows!"

"My kikaichu are detecting faint traces of chakra usage, especially in the ground. I believe a battle was fought here no less than a day ago."

Kurenai glanced around uneasily. She trusted her genin and their senses, but there had been no news of a fight this close to the village. No one had gone missing. None of this sounded good. "Okay, let's keep moving. I'll mark this place and make an in-person report to the Hokage after we fill out the mission report scroll."

Their sensei left a chakra marker so that searchers could find the place again, and they made it back to the village with no further incident. She left her team filling out the scroll, while she waited to see the Hokage.

It was a long wait. The Third could make time in minutes, Kurenai thought irritably. She had wanted to do an immediate debrief with her team, but they were probably all heading home by now.

Finally the door opened. Kurenai found the Hokage sitting behind his desk, a stack of papers to the right, the wood otherwise cleared. The office was nearly barren, giving it a cold and uninviting look, far from the days when the Third was in office. In a crisp tone she told him about the site of the battle and the marker she had left there.

"I will send someone to investigate, Jounin Kurenai, but are you sure you aren't overreacting?" The Hokage smiled kindly, crinkling the skin at the corner of his eye and making his eye bandages move. "You just came back from a hard mission and your genin were very tired - could they not have made a mistake? The kunai were probably really there, but then, we've lived in this forest a long time, and shinobi are not always the best at cleaning up after themselves. I don't think this is truly as mysterious as you seem to think it is."

Kurenai left that office absolutely fuming mad that the Hokage would suggest she was allowing her genin to overreact. The nerve!

But as she walked home, the cool dusk air swept into her head. She calmed down a little and tried to review what the Hokage had said. Was he really accusing her? Or just offering an out, a way to save face, if it turned out that she'd reported a false alarm?

He may have been, she admitted. And the more she thought about it the more she was sure she had been alarmed over nothing.

Surely, there was nothing strange going on in the forest outside of Konoha.

15th of June, 62 f.K.

"You should accept. You know you wanted to join the police force."

Shikaku Nara shifted in his seat. "Yeah, but I wanted to be a part of it, not... lead it."

On the bar in front of him was a paper offering him commission as Captain of the Military Police Force. Danzo's signature was at the bottom, below an expectantly blank space for Shikaku's name.

Inoichi tilted the paper so he could look at it again. "Almost the same thing, right? Didn't Fugaku used to patrol sometimes? It's not just a desk job."

Shikaku hummed. "Yeah, maybe. But where's yours?"


"Where's your commission?"

"Well, says right here that if you accept, the Hokage will welcome your input on your first pick of subordinates. You know the first ones are going to be hand-picked by the Hokage; we can have elections after that as people get rotated out. Business opens up on the first of July, elections held every four months." Inoichi's finger moved down the page, scanning. "Chuunin and jounin can cast votes, but not genin unless they've been on active duty for a total of three years. Did you just not read this at all?"

"I got the gist of it. I keep you around for reading." Shikaku sighed noisily and put his head down on the dark wood. Usually the chatter in this semi-full ninja bar helped him to think clearly; but right now he just wanted silence. "Troublesome," he muttered, although his wife had mostly forbidden this saying since his son started using it so often.

He signed the commission.

10th of October, 62 f.K.

Only the brightest stars shone in the sky over Konoha on the night of October 10th. Far below their faint glow, the ninja village was bathed in the light of hundreds of paper lanterns, all handmade over the last week. One for every loved one lost during the Nine-tailed demon's attack; one from each family for their lost Hokage, who gave his life to save them all.

These lanterns were verdant green and brightest blue, cheerful yellow, royal purple; every color but red. They glowed on strings across streets - most thickly strung across the main street. Under their shine the residents of the Leaf, civilian and shinobi alike, celebrated and mourned their dead. They told stories of fallen comrades. They poured drinks for spirits and talked to graves. There was sadness in it but celebration as well, and a kind of purification.

At midnight, the jounin commander lit a blazing red torch at Konoha's gate and carried it down the main street escorted by selected chuunin and jounin, straight to the base of the Hokage Monument. There waited the Hokage, surrounded by his faceless ANBU, who would douse the jounin commander's torch and then turn and light the bonfire behind him with a new flame, chemically made to burn white.

After the ceremony, the Memorial Festival began to wind down. The paper lanterns burned out in swathes. The white bonfire kept burning until dawn.

21st of March, 63 f.K.

Shikaku concentrated briefly to manipulate a shadow into closing his office door for him. It took just as much effort as standing and walking, but his current position in his chair was comfortable.

He figured Eizan had left the door ajar on purpose when he walked out. It was the kind of petty move he could expect from someone he'd just reprimanded.

"Didn't see a reason to step in," his ass. There may not have been a ninja in that barfight but it had destroyed three tables, nonetheless.

Shikaku sighed and tilted his head back into his chair. The darkness of his office wanted to lure his eyes shut, remind him that he hadn't worked such long hours since he got off active duty when Shikamaru was three years old.

"Bad day?"

Shikaku started badly, sending a kunai automatically toward the voice at the same time as he took control of the shadows around him again.

"Who are you and what are you doing here?" he asked, scanning the room with every sense. He was coming up empty, which was unnerving.

A figure peeled itself off the front wall of his office, stepping casually halfway into the pool of light coming from the window in the door. Shikaku could make out his face now; it took him a moment to place the dark eyes and brown hair, but it was the metal frame around his face that truly gave him away.

"Tenzo, isn't it?" Ex-ANBU; probably had serious psychological problems. ANBU always did.

"Yes, that's me."

"What are you doing here? If you've got a crime to report you have a strange way of doing it."

Tenzo smiled - it might have come out enigmatic, except for the strangeness of his face. He crossed the rest of the little room in two strides and leaned over Shikaku's desk, just on the safe side of threatening. "Actually I just want to ask you some questions."

"From what I understand," Shikaku leaned forward as well; uncomfortably close. "that's not usually how this police thing works."

"Well, I do have a crime to report. But not now. You wouldn't believe me yet. Or worse - you would, and you'd try to do something about it."

Shikaku felt anger bubbling up. "I'm not some green genin to be going off half-cocked the moment I get new intel. Say what you mean to say or get out, Jounin Tenzo."

"Just questions, sir. Do you know why the Military Police first was formed?"

"A gift of trust to the Uchiha clan. I don't need a history lesson."

"Wrong! Or so some would say. Do you know what the Uchiha used the Military Police to do?"

"Knowing what's coming, I'm still going to say... they policed the military?"

"Also a little wrong. Last question: Why would Kakashi Hatake leave the Leaf?"

Shikaku froze. Blood rushed through his ears. "He was a traitor."

"You need to brush up on your history after all, Captain Nara." Tenzo stepped back from the captain's desk and stood against the wall again. Just before the shadows absorbed him, he stage-whispered, "The correct answer is: he wouldn't."

Shikaku brushed up on his history after that strange visit. Curiosity flared in him in a way it hadn't for a long time. As irritating as Tenzo's questions had been, they nagged at him. His mind, called vast and strategic by both friend and foe, turned the problem over and over.

He went to learn more about the history of Konoha.

Konoha's library held several scrolls on her history, but these were all general knowledge. Nothing of true importance in a ninja village gets recorded in a publicly accessible place. But Konoha's oldest clans had their own libraries of clan techniques and, most importantly to Shikaku, journals kept by past family members. He pulled down one from the right time frame and flicked through.

Why was the Military Police formed?

The Academy, back when they spent a lesson on the subject, had said it was a gift of trust to the Uchiha clan.

What did the Uchiha use the Military Police to do?

They policed the ninja and helped the civilians to feel safe.

Not according to Dosui Nara.

"Uproar among the Uchiha today, large enough that even they can't hide it behind those emotionless facades. Probably has to do with the Military Police issue mentioned in my last entry. They aren't happy, especially the one with the weird half-face protector. Everyone knows why. Senju said it was a gift of good faith to the Uchiha clan but they are smart enough to know that the ninja will resent their power. It's power enough to lord over the common ninja, but no power to govern, and that's what they want.
This is going to be trouble."

The clan passed along techniques, land, genetic intelligence, and, apparently, attitudes towards work. Another entry later on:

"I don't like the way the Uchiha have begun to watch us. Feels like I can't throw a kunai without almost hitting one of those red-eyes. They use the excuse of 'patrolling' to watch ninja on the training grounds, practicing taijutsu and ninjustu. And their eyes are red when they do. They're stealing techniques from their own village, the spies. Glad they're on our side. They are doing actual police work, which I suppose is why the Hokage hasn't disbanded them yet."

Shikaku had known for a long time that there were many sides to any story; that it was always prudent to look underneath the 'truth'. He just hadn't thought to apply it to everything in his life. That would be exhausting.

But he had been wrong.

The Uchiha had used the Military Police Force to spy on their fellow ninja and become stronger. Bad, but not necessarily treason. Why was that half-mad Tenzo spouting off about traitors? Why on earth was he asking about Hatake? Shikaku had known the man in passing, in the ways everyone knew about the Fourth's student.

Kakashi Hatake would never leave Konoha, Tenzo said. But he had. Tenzo couldn't be saying he was still in the village - it had been over a year, someone would definitely have noticed.

Shikaku went to bed that night with questions still whirling in his mind, bouncing off one another and making half-familiar bells ring.

Tenzo got what he had wanted; Shikaku, one of the smartest people in Konoha and one in a position of power, was finally asking questions of his own.

1st of July, 64 f.K.

"And how did he leave? None of the other Root agents on duty saw him."

Raku was perfectly still as he delivered his report. About as still as a rabbit that knows a hawk is circling overhead. "I believe he used a Wood technique to transport himself through the wall."

This was why Danzo didn't have any purely wooden walls in any of his secure structures. But the Military Police Station was an old-Konoha building, woven from living wood. It would be easy for Tenzo to manipulate it.

Danzo leaned back and put the tips of his fingers together under his chin. "Did you hear anything else during the meeting?"

"Only what I have told you."

"You are dismissed."

When Raku was gone Danzo took a few moments to compose himself, remind himself that breaking something, much as he might want to, would solve nothing and only arouse suspicion. Self-control was so hard to maintain on days like this.

It was late evening in Konoha, with a warm breeze and summer on the air outside Hokage Tower - but Danzo didn't feel it. The window was closed. Unlike the Third, he wouldn't allow all and sundry to enter his office that way.

The newest Military Police elections had been held today. And, as in the last two elections, somehow Danzo's agents had been suborned and outvoted. As of today his only two Root in the MPs were Raku and a low-ranking clerk girl. The organization he had restarted for the sole purpose of gathering intelligence within the village had somehow slipped out of his hands.

Thanks to Raku, he knew how. Shikaku was meeting in secret with that pain-in-his-ass Tenzo! Danzo should never have released him from ANBU service. Should have gotten rid of him. Couldn't do it now - it would raise questions.

But no, Danzo argued, he couldn't have kept Tenzo in ANBU. Those elites were too close to the Hokage, and Tenzo couldn't be trusted. He had once been good friends with Konoha's most recent traitor. And he had been disappearing on missions, vanishing outside of Root's vision for hours at a time. At least now Danzo could keep him contained within the village, or at the very least within Fire Country.

The MPF was a complete loss. Likely only pieces of it were turned against him - Tenzo, Shikaku, and whoever else Tenzo had dared whisper his poison to. And - it was considered briefly - he couldn't shut it down. Questions again. It had only been two years since the Third's death. Change needed to happen slowly, so slowly they didn't even realize it.

How Danzo loathed letting them go without a fight. It wasn't often he was outplayed. If only there was a way to strike back quietly....

Perhaps there was.

2nd of July, 64 f.K.

The sick feeling started in Iruka's stomach before the Hokage was even done speaking. The rest of the man's speech went muted and distant to his ears. Iruka had heard enough.

This wasn't what he had signed up for.

The teachers' weekly meeting at the end of classes on Friday had been co-opted by the Hokage for an announcement. All day conversation had been buzzing about what the Fifth could want; some excited, some worried. Iruka had put his own speculations aside to focus on his work.

He wished he'd had time to prepare somehow.

The Hokage was changing the Academy structure again, "Having had such rousing success last time." He had more ideas.

His ideas were wrong.

The Hokage was worried about infiltration via Academy because of new reports from Konoha's spy network. Under his new rules, if an applicant's parents hadn't been born and raised in Konoha the applicant was automatically sorted into the new E-class without the qualification test, where they would be taught among their peers until they were proven trustworthy.

Iruka stopped listening around the time the Hokage said that the E-class's only teacher would be Toshiro Ogata. Iruka knew him; he worked in T&I between missions and liked it way too much. He was an expert at psychological manipulation.

And he would be inflicted on children.

Iruka zoned out for the rest of the meeting. He didn't know what was said, only realized it was over when everyone started standing up around him. He was busy weighing the pros and cons of quitting the Academy.

He let himself into his dark apartment and kicked off his shoes. The kettle was on the stove before he registered a presence behind him.

Iruka whirled, kunai in hand. Behind him was an odd man in jounin uniform, with large dark eyes and a strange metal frame around the sides of his face ending at the jaw. He had a Leaf headband.

"Who are you?"

The man's head tilted to the side. "My name is Tenzo. You aren't happy about the Academy reforms."

Iruka's eyes widened.

"Ah, don't worry. I'm not here on the Hokage's behalf. I'm here for someone else. Tell me, do you know how many times the Hokage lied during his little speech?"

Mutely, he shook his head. Until he knew more about what was going on, Iruka didn't plan on speaking at all.

"Three times. One: when he said the first Academy reform was a success. You already know that the only thing it did was accelerate graduation rates. It did not improve education. Two: when he said that the 'trustworthy' would be moved into regular classes. They will instead disappear into isolated classrooms where they will become loyal and effective weapons of Konoha. And three: when he said that this was caused by reports from Konoha's spy network.

"The Leaf's spy network no longer reports to Danzo."

13th of August, 65 f.K.

Iruka frowned as he slid the message to the side, pulling out a class roster from under the semi-organized papers on his desk. He glanced up quickly to check on the kids still filing in for the beginning of class. All was well.

He found the name on his roster and put a little black X next to it.

"Ami," he called to the girl who was just about to take her seat. She broke off her conversation with another girl and looked up at him questioningly. "Come here, please."

She stopped in front of his desk. Iruka handed her the message. "Congratulations, you've been transferred up from the A class." Iruka smiled, though his heart wasn't in it. "Take this to the room number on the card. Good luck."

Ami's brow furrowed. She was ten years old. "You're not going to be my sensei anymore?"

"No, Ami, you've done very well so you're going to the advanced class. I'm sure you'll like it there."

"Do you know the teacher? Are any of my friends in the class?"

Iruka knew nothing about the advanced class; his were empty platitudes. He kept his smile frozen. He lied, "Yes, I've visited. It'll be fun for you. You know you can move faster than my class goes."

Ami nodded doubtfully. "Okay. I'll go now. I should take my stuff?"

Iruka watched her go, his stomach churning awfully around his breakfast. He did know something about the advanced class. He knew that two of his students had already been moved up, and he hadn't seen them since - but he'd heard about one of them. Hyuuga Hanabi had been graduated early from the advanced class and placed on Team Twelve with other promising genin.

On its second mission outside Konoha, Team Twelve had returned two genin short.

Iruka sighed bitterly and burned her name into his mind. In two days when he made his report to the shadow that came out of his wall, he might be able to let a bit of this guilt go.

Experience told him it wasn't going to be that easy.

21st of December, 65 f.K.

The Hokage in his Tower finished writing up the new team assignments for the graduating classes. He rolled up the scroll and gave it to an aide, then donned the hat.

Danzo didn't allow himself the pleasure of being anxious about this upcoming encounter. He'd had all of last night and this morning to prepare. His Root ninja had been keeping watch the whole time; he knew exactly what he was dealing with.

It was close enough to noon. Danzo put down his pen and went out for lunch.

He ate methodically, careful not to be rushed - but he didn't order a lot to eat. With that task done he went for a walk that happened to meander right down the wooden partition blocking off the women's bathing pool.

As expected, the man was there attempting to 'research' for his latest book.

"Sage Jiraiya, I hope you're not doing what I think you are."

Jiraiya made a great show of being surprised, jumping around with a little 'ha!' He settled when he saw Danzo in the Hokage's robes. "Oh, it's you."

Danzo raised one brow. "Yes. May I ask what brings you back to Konoha? Not that we aren't glad to have you, but you have been gone quite a long time. Since before my predecessor's passing."

"Yeah, well, painful memories and all that. But I'm over it. I've come back to, hmm... reconnect with my roots."

Danzo gave no outward indication that Jiraiya's words had made his heartbeat stutter. "Is that so? Please, walk with me. This isn't the place to be having a conversation."

Jiraiya nodded and fell into step beside the Hokage as they moved away from the women's bathhouse. Danzo worked through Jiraiya's meaning in a smooth kind of frenzy, and came to the conclusion that Jiraiya was either indicating that he would be amenable to working with Danzo to protect Konoha, or that Jiraiya was threatening Danzo's secrets.

"I also thought I might check up on some people; old friends, old war buddies, my student's little brat." This was delivered in a perfectly even tone.

"Please, Jiraiya, do you expect me to believe that you don't know?" Danzo threw him a calculated dry look. "Naruto Uzumaki and his teammates were kidnapped by Kakashi Hatake the very day of the Third's death. We haven't seen or heard from them since; in all likelihood Hatake killed them not long after and is now out there working freelance. In fact, I would say that you know more about it than I, given your chosen line of work."

Jiraiya's face was pure confusion. Of course, Danzo had expected nothing less from a spymaster. "What part of being a traveling writer is supposed to inform me of the whereabouts of missing-nin?"

Danzo conceded doubtfully, "Yes, I'm sure I have you confused with someone else. So you are here to reconnect? I won't delay you. Oh, and Jiraiya? Please try to keep the 'research' to a minimum while in the village. If you are caught, our ladies here are more than capable of making you regret it."

Jiraiya laughed it off, but the way his mouth twisted told Danzo that the other man had fully understood the threat.

Good. Now it was a waiting game.

What in Fire Country could Jiraiya want?

29th of December, 65 f.K.

"Maha, you've got to see this."

"If it's another interesting bug, I don't want to see it."

"No, I mean really. Look!"

Maha sighed but crested the hill Tashi was standing on top of. She got to the top much faster than she expected to; she had lived in the Land of Rivers all her life, and this hill had always been taller.

Looking out at the valley in front of her, she guessed that she knew what had happened.

Previously, this area had been lush green rolling hills. When the rains came and the rivers flooded, this area became a marsh, with feet sinking into soft earth at each step. Next time it flooded, all the water would probably gather in the massive gorges and craters now dotting the little valley.

"I saw places like this after the Third Shinobi War," Zuri commented, coming up behind them. He was one of the oldest ninja in the Village Hidden in the Valleys. "But usually there was more blood. This is the site of a ninja battle, children."

Tashi shivered. "Where do you think they went after they were done here?" His face turned automatically in the direction of Tani.

Zuri sighed. "Relax. Our Valley is safe. I have a feeling our visitors are long gone to someplace else. There's not enough blood here."

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Maha. She was sure that the less blood there was in any given area, the better.

"This wasn't a battle, it was practice. And whoever was practicing - they left in that direction. Away from Tani, thank the dark god."

Zuri was pointing to the Land of Fire - and beyond that, to the Village Hidden in the Leaves.

Chapter Text

7th of March, 62 f.K

The soft rustle of cloth shifting, a muffled sniffle. Naruto leaned up on one arm and looked over to where Sakura had laid her bedroll.

"Sakura? Are you okay?"

Poised silence, and then: "Go to sleep Naruto."

"You were crying." he said softly, and saw through the dark that she flinched. "I'm sorry, Sakura. It's my fault you're here. Kakashi-sensei wanted to leave you behind but I wouldn't let him. I shouldn't have dragged you into this...."

At least if she was blaming him, she would be angry at an easy target rather than just plain sad.

Sakura sighed audibly and sat up completely, folding her arms over her knees. Naruto copied her position, three feet away and the space between filled with the quiet night. "No, I'm glad you did."

Naruto barely kept himself from making a louder sound of surprise. He managed to muffle it into a grunt.

She continued, "I don't regret being here. It's where I belong, you know? With my team. But... we're all alone. This is all we have. You, me, Sasuke, and Kakashi-sensei. If something bad happens, there's no one else to go to. And even worse, it's just us against the whole world."

"And you don't think we can do it." Naruto had to admit, he'd had his own doubts. They had been brief, and he had pushed them all out of his mind because they weren't helpful; but he knew the odds.

"Well, I didn't say that." She smiled a little sadly, staring at the ground. "Kakashi-sensei is strong, and for the first time he's going to be putting his all into training us. That will help. But that's not what I'm sad about now. All of Konoha thinks we're traitors. My friends, my family, the ninja.... They're probably all trying to hate us."

Naruto digested this for a time, wondering why he himself wasn't feeling the same. Then he knew. "I took everyone I care about with me." Sakura shot him a look. "I mean it. You and Sasuke... and Kakashi-sensei, too, I guess. Teuchi and Ayame probably won't even know enough to hate me; they're not ninja. And Iruka-sensei..." Iruka-sensei bestowing the Leaf headband, grinning through the intense pain of an injury: You pass. "...I guess I just have to trust that he knows better. He knows I would never betray the village."

"But what about the others? The other ninja - our friends, our yearmates, they'll all hate us!"

Naruto's mouth twisted into an ugly expression. "Yeah, that must suck."

Sakura nearly flinched from the sudden venom in Naruto's voice. He noticed. "I'm sorry, Sakura-chan, I didn't mean that."

But Sakura knew what he had been trying to say. It was the thing he never said, the one thing Konoha's number-one loudmouth wouldn't mouth-off about. "That was you every day, wasn't it?"

Now it was Naruto's turn to flinch. His shoulders were hunched in as though expecting pain. He knew she wanted to talk about it, and he desperately didn't want to.

Sakura swallowed the rest of what she had been about to say. "I'm sorry. I'll shut up. But if you want to talk, I'm here. You did it for me. I can for you."

Sakura rested back down and got comfortable, and heard him doing the same. She thought he was asleep until -

"Thanks, Sakura. But talking doesn't help this."

27th of March, 62 f.K.

"Sasuke, slow down. Sakura's falling too far behind!"

Sasuke glanced back at Naruto, who was equally distant from both him and the girl behind them. He looked ahead and Naruto saw the thought playing out in his mind.

"You idiot, we stand a better chance of surviving anything if we stay together!"

Sakura caught up to Naruto then - and Sasuke, miraculously, dropped back. "Maybe I was just scouting ahead, idiot."

"They're all behind us, that's kind of the point." Naruto glared; didn't Sasuke understand? "Kakashi-sensei is back there laying traps and beating them up so we just have to keep moving. Right, Sakura?"

The girl looked at him and nodded, but she was too focused on breathing to speak. Naruto slowed down a little more. "Hey, maybe I could carry you?"

His slowing down probably saved Sakura's life. The kunai lodged in his lower ribs instead of Sakura's chest, and with that split-second warning all three were able to take cover from the follow-up shower of shuriken.

"One of them got ahead of us!" Sasuke exclaimed, turning accusing eyes on the other two - they had been going so slow.

"Shut up, shut up, we just gotta deal with it!" Naruto shouted back. He gripped the kunai but then left it in - he didn't want to bleed out.

Their opponent was still hidden, but now so were they. Sakura finally got her breath back enough to point and say, "Came from that way,"

Sasuke shifted bright red eyes onto the trees. It was dusk, and the forest was coming alive around them. The branches moved, squirrels and rodents scampered through the undergrowth, birds chirped and flittered here and there. Only one thing was motionless.

"There," Sasuke breathed, taking two kunai from the pouch on his leg. A hand on his forearm stopped him though he shrugged it off immediately. He looked up into Sakura's pale green eyes.

"We've only got one shot at this," she murmured, dipping her head slightly at Naruto to include him.

Naruto had his bloody hands in the seal for Shadow Clone, and he was grinning madly.

When Kakashi caught up to them they hadn't moved much farther. The kunai had been removed from Naruto's side and Sakura had bandaged it up. He and Sasuke were dividing their attacker's weapons amongst themselves and Sakura.

Kakashi's one visible eye moved from the unconscious Konoha ninja to Naruto and Sasuke, and then to Sakura who was tying him up. She waved. "We took care of it."

"Good work."

He bent down over the Konoha nin and lifted the ANBU mask carefully to see the face beneath it. By his expression his students guessed that he didn't like what he found. Kakashi took the mask off completely and broke it into pieces between his hands. Then he removed the Leaf headband from the man, took a kunai, and gouged a deep line into the metal - right through the Leaf.

"Sensei, what are you doing?" Sakura asked, drawing her other teammates' attention.

Kakashi dropped the ruined headband on the man's chest. "This is one of Danzo's Root. They are traitors; they do not serve the Leaf, so they don't get to wear its symbol." He locked eyes with each of them. "Same reason we haven't marked ours. Whether they know it or not, we are loyal ninja."

Slowly each of them nodded - Naruto, then Sakura, then Sasuke. Kakashi smiled. "On a lighter note, happy birthday Sakura."

She gave a small, startled laugh, looking up at the dark sky. It must have been past midnight - it was the twenty-eighth. "If I were at home, I'd get to choose dinner today. Presents, a party.... Never mind."

"Your birthday present is that you stay alive today - and the knowledge that three of you took out a skilled ninja."

Sakura's smile was small but absolutely genuine. "I guess that's good enough. I didn't much like the parties anyway."

3rd of April, 62 f.K.

To Kakashi's continuing surprise, Naruto was the first of his students to awake. Because Kakashi was an incorrigible ninja with too much free time on his hands, he knew that Naruto had regularly slept in through multiple alarms and noises. Something had changed in him outside of the village; Naruto was quieter, boasted less, and woke early.

Kakashi wasn't willing to assume it was because the boy was taking the situation seriously. He thought it was probably because for the first time in his life, Naruto didn't have to compete to be noticed.

Regardless, the boy muttered a soft 'good morning' to Kakashi and went fishing in their bags for ration bars. Dinner was usually caught and roasted daily, lunch usually skipped - but breakfast no one wanted to put much effort towards.

"Let's wake the others. We have to talk," Kakashi suggested. Sasuke would be tired still - he had had the earlier watch, and gone to sleep hours after his teammates.

Kakashi let Naruto kick him awake; he was gentler about it than he would have been only a month ago.

The four of them crouched in a loose circle around the center of their little camp. Sakura was getting rid of the worst of her hair's tangles. Sasuke blinked sleepily even as his foot connected with the unsuspecting Naruto.

"Settle down, boys. We're gonna have a little talk about the future." That got their attention. Kakashi was now the recipient of three intent pairs of eyes.

"I've already told you why we're out here, and what I plan to do about that. What you don't know are a lot of the details... things it won't help you to know. But this is about your training, so you're going to need it."

"The point, sensei, you're dancing around it." Sakura nearly snapped. Kakashi had also learned that she had much less patience in the morning.

"In order for the village to accept us back we have to be so valuable to them that they want us. This means that you all are going to have to train harder than you thought you ever would." Kakashi locked eyes with each of them in turn. "You're going to have to do things that the ninja in Konoha don't have to do. And while we are training, we need to stay six steps ahead of the hunters."

"Well, we've already learned a hell of a lot more about hiding and disappearing than I thought existed." Sakura mused. She finally gave up on the worst tangle in her hair and let it just hang there.

"This is different." Kakashi stood and gestured for everyone to start packing up. "What I've taught you so far will allow you to survive. Now we're moving on to thriving."

"What's the difference?" Naruto asked.

Kakashi smiled. "Why, I'm glad you asked."

18th of April, 62 f.K.

A husband and wife and their two children came into the city of Sendai at noon. They were typical civilians, with dark hair and dark eyes, so common that to describe them would be to describe any of a thousand people also in the city. Once into the city proper the little family of four ducked into a row behind the shops lining the streets.

Kakashi shed his Henge; Sakura swiped the colored contacts out of her eyes and put them away; Naruto undid his strange transformation into a woman. Sasuke was the only one who hadn't needed a disguise, though in a few years those aristocratic features would be a little too distinguishing.

Sakura glared at Kakashi silently, flicking her gaze over to Naruto repeatedly.

"Maa, Sakura, you couldn't be the wife. Your Henge still pours off chakra to any sensor ninja. Naruto's doesn't, for some reason." Kakashi smiled at her. "I know, I was surprised too."

Sakura huffed. She wasn't terribly mollified, but at least Naruto looked happy at the praise. Sasuke was looking around, taking in the sights of a city for the first time in his life.

"Come on, let's walk around a bit. We'll find a hotel later."

They walked, and despite the noise around them it continued to be the quietest week of Kakashi's life. It was unorthodox team training, yes, but Minato had done it first. Or tried it. Obito had never really shut up.

For the past week, Kakashi's team had not been allowed to speak to each other or him. If they wanted to make themselves understood, they had to find some nonverbal way of doing so. Sakura proved to be very good at it, while Sasuke had 'said' nothing the entire time. Naruto frequently failed to communicate, mostly because of the flailing. He'd tried speaking only once in frustration; Kakashi had hit him with a precise chop to the throat, forestalling the words, and cheerfully exclaimed that he would be enforcing the no-talking rule personally.

The idea was that in utter silence his team could learn to better understand each other. And it seemed to be working.

Kakashi started lecturing, "At this point in your training in the village we would have already had some sort of mission to a city like this, just to get you used to it. One of the drawbacks of our rather isolated living is that our young ninja tend to think of Konoha as the center of the universe - which it pretty much is, for us, but not for everyone else. Outside of the ninja villages, life sometimes looks like this.

"On the Wave mission you experienced civilian life in a village smaller than Konoha. Experiences such as that one allow you to better mimic a rural civilian when undercover. But life in a city is very much different from life in our home and also life in another village. For example: crime."

Kakashi nodded to a pair of children running a pickpocketing game on a group of tourists. Not far off, a large man in the shadow of a building watched over them.

"The ninja in our village act as a kind of police - we stop that if we ever see it happening, as well as numerous other kinds. Because of the saturation of shinobi in the village, there is essentially no crime. This place doesn't have something like that. If they have police, the police are not numerous enough to catch everyone willing to commit crime."

Kakashi glanced at his students. Naruto was watching the pickpockets avidly, as though studying their technique. Sakura, while attentive, was also looking at the more exotic shops; Kakashi elected to allow it so long as she also paid attention to other surroundings. Sasuke was still trying to be difficult to read, but his teacher got the distinct impression that he was interested.

"Cities like this also give rise to organized crime gangs. That man watching over the children will collect at least half of what they steal, in return for protecting them should they be caught."

Kakashi caught the question on Naruto's face out of the corner of his eye. "They steal because no one is going to feed them. In Konoha, as in many ninja villages, we provide free education and housing to residents, as well as a stipend to anyone unable to provide for themselves. We can do this for two reasons: we control our population via the gates, and because we have martial law. That means that if someone is admitted to the village, given housing and a stipend, and is found to be a drain on society - we can throw them out. They become someone else's problem.

"Konoha is a Hidden Village. Somewhere in this city right now is the Lord of the Land of Fire. When the Senju first settled Konoha, they asked permission from the Lord to use the land; we exist in a partnership with the Lord. He knows that he cannot force us out of Konoha without devastating loss of life, and that in doing so he would make an enemy of every other ninja village. We know that if he wanted to he could in fact raise the army it would take to oust us, so we follow some of his rules... up to a point. This is called a balance of power. I've summarized a lot of it, but you've got the gist.

"Now, has anyone been keeping track of the date?"

Kakashi scanned their faces - none had. His mouth twisted a little. "We'll have to work on that. Knowing little details like that can make or break a cover. Today is April eighteenth."

April eighteenth, Foundation Day in Konoha. The next biggest holiday after the Memorial Festival, it was when the village celebrated their years and successes since the Leaf had settled in the Land of Fire.

Kakashi saw in the wistful expression on Sakura's face that she was missing home, in Sasuke's that he was remembering - probably what Foundation Day had meant to the Uchiha, who always celebrated it with a bit more fervor than anyone else. Naruto was smiling.

Of course. He hadn't left much behind.

"So, to celebrate, we're going to buy a meal cooked by someone else for a change, restock on rations and new clothes, get more supplies. We're running low on rope. Sakura, we'll send you in to buy two more sewing kits; ours are almost used up. Naruto, you need a new bag."

Naruto tugged Kakashi's sleeve, and when he had the man's attention he deliberately pulled out his empty pockets.

Kakashi grinned at him. "Well, I did point out the pickpockets for a reason. I'll cover you - and I'll only demand half. You can talk to people for this exercise, but not each other."

He watched over them as stated. Naruto and Sakura played the distraction, darting past their marks on either side to jostle them. Some dropped their baggage, giving Sasuke even more time to get away with whatever he could. Kakashi noted that they had wordlessly targeted people who seemed to be dressed a little better than everyone else, who had money to spare.

They returned to him not an hour later. Sasuke handed out their haul, and at Kakashi's pointed look produced even more - Sasuke would have a ways to go yet before he could pull one over on his sensei.

"Let's go shopping!"

When their purchases were made, Kakashi led them to the nearest restaurant. Their orders all ran along the same lines, evidence to anyone who was paying attention of what they had been doing recently. All three of his genin ordered the stew, fresh bread, and the kind of fanciful time-consuming dishes that couldn't be made on the road. Stew took hours to cook right, as well as some level of attention; bread needed a real oven, and didn't have a long storage life.

Later, as dusk gave way to night, they resumed their disguises to walk calmly out of the city with their purchases. If there were ninja watching the city, Kakashi had explained, they would be watching choke points like the roads in and out since the city was too large to watch over properly.

Once far enough from the lights of Sendai, they went to where they had cached their gear, packing away the new items. They shouldered their bags.

Sasuke noticed that Kakashi hadn't packed away something wrapped up in plain brown paper. He didn't remember seeing his sensei buying it. He nudged Naruto and indicated the package with a tilt of his head.

Naruto got Kakashi's attention with a thrown acorn. He pointed almost accusingly at the paper. Kakashi finished strapping on his own pack and went over to the paper.

"Get ready to run," was all he said while unwrapping it. Kakashi struck a match - and then they understood.

Forgetting his silence, Naruto laughed aloud as the fireworks erupted, streaking up into the sky. They exploded into green and blue fire, whistling and screaming all the while. Sakura's face was turned up in surprised delight, and even Sasuke had the tiniest smile on his face.

Hundreds of fireworks would be going off over in Konoha tonight. Today Team Seven had learned that the rest of the world didn't particularly care about ninja or their villages, that they didn't celebrate the same things or worship the same gods. But Kakashi had reminded them that they weren't that far from home.

Not when they could set off fireworks on Foundation Day.

14th of May, 62 f.K.

The Land of Lightning did not look like a beautiful place upon first sight; at least, not for someone who had grown up under tall trees and the sound of leaves whispering in the wind. It was a mountainous land, lots of bare earth and tiny, sickly-looking trees. Scraggly bushes and vines clung to the rock face, reaching towards what little light reached down the slopes. The sun came late and set early in the shadow of the mountains.

But from the top, it was like looking over the whole world. It was like being a god.

It was also a good vantage point for spotting movement below.

Sakura tapped Sasuke on the side of his shoulder, pointed to her own eyes and then down below. I see something. Look down.

Sasuke turned his attention to where she pointed, narrowing bright red eyes. He made four chopping motions with his right hand, three over his left wrist and one over his left elbow. He followed it with four fingers spread directly in front of his eyes. Three genin, one jounin. Cloud/fog.

Naruto looked at Kakashi for confirmation. Their sensei just raised his eyebrow, inviting them to work it out for themselves.

Sakura sighed. She jabbed a finger at Sasuke and then at her own temple. You sure?

Sasuke nodded.

Simultaneously, Naruto and Sakura both put their hands together in fists and drew them apart, like opening up a scroll. They gave each other wry smiles. Report.

Slowly Sasuke's signing came together: Enemy making camp. Cooking fresh-kill, returning mission. No protection mission-objective, unsure: escort mission?

Naruto nodded. He mimed slashing with a kunai and then flashed a starburst up near his forehead. Surprise attack.

Sakura nodded and rolled her eyes irritably at Kakashi. There were no signs, but her meaning was clear: Yes, it will be a surprise, because who attacks genin teams in home country for practice?

Their sensei smiled and still didn't speak.

As they descended the steep side of the mountain - more of a hill, really - hand-signs flashed between them, planning the attack. They would incapacitate the jounin-sensei first, as the most dangerous target, and attempt to move on to the others. Sakura and Sasuke would go in first; Naruto would hang back to watch their backs and prevent any counter attacks.

They hid and watched the Cloud ninja eat and then settle into their bedrolls. One of the genin, the girl, had the first watch. They removed their Konoha headbands for the battle.

Sakura and Sasuke exchanged a single look. They didn't need to sign it: Sasuke would take the jounin, Sakura could take out the genin girl.

Sakura's girl didn't even manage a squeak as Sakura put her in a headlock. Pressure on the vocal cords to prevent screaming, pressure on the carotid to end consciousness in a matter of seconds. She let the girl fall back carefully and looked up to see Sasuke wide-eyed with fear.

There was a lump of rock in the jounin-sensei's bed.

A voice shouted from outside the camp, "Kuroi, Ketsu, wake up!"

It was followed by a thunk from the same direction. The jounin staggered out from behind an outcropping of rock bleeding from a head wound. He immediately made for his genin.

Sakura tossed one precious senbon at one of the genin just waking up, then dropped back from the jounin. It was their only senbon coated with a sleeping agent, guaranteed to knock an enemy out. The boy, not even completely awake, blinked blearily and collapsed back down, needle sticking out of his neck.

Sasuke meanwhile had stepped forward to meet the rush. He and the jounin collided, kunai in hand. Sasuke, smaller and less experienced, was rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the jounin, and the other genin was about to join in the fight -

Eight of Naruto dropped out of the sky, having jumped off the rock the jounin had been hiding behind. They took the jounin's attention away from Sasuke, allowing him to recover. Sakura darted forward finally, engaging with the last genin. He was slow and clumsy with sleep, but it was still like fighting with Naruto or Sasuke. He was bigger and stronger.

But not smarter. Sakura had remembered the heavy meal they had seen these genin eating not long ago, and she waited for an opening. It cost her one deadened arm, but she managed a good punch to his gut and that was all she needed. The boy automatically doubled over as he vomited, and she clasped both hands into a fist which she brought down on the back of his neck. He crumpled without another sound.

Sakura looked up from her fight to find that Naruto and Sasuke were still dealing with the jounin. As she watched Sasuke flicked through the last two hand seals and spat out a fireball at a knot of four Narutos and the jounin. There was an aborted jerk as he tried to get out of the way, but all four of his opponents latched on and held him down.

The fireball hit and consumed the jounin for a few seconds before burning itself out, leaving the man alone with the four clones having been dispelled. He brought burned arms away from his face, revealing reddened skin. He stopped.

"Give up now or I slit her throat."

Sasuke looked back to see Sakura holding up the female genin with a kunai to her neck. Sakura took deep breaths and tried to keep her hands from shaking. If the jounin called her bluff they would have to start fighting again; Sakura wouldn't kill the girl.

The jounin dropped his hands to his sides and let go of his kunai. He sat down heavily with a groan. Naruto stepped up from behind and had him in the same headlock Sakura had used on the girl in half a second. The man gripped his arm reflexively, but his eyes never left his genin girl and he didn't try to break the hold.

It was over.

"Good work." Kakashi appeared in a swirl of leaves, out of place in this almost barren land. "Minimal injuries. Excellent teamwork. Sasuke, Naruto - if Sakura hadn't threatened the jounin I think you still could have beaten him. Sakura, good thinking with that move, and you are forgiven for speaking. I'd also like to congratulate you on taking out three times as many opponents as your teammates."

Sasuke's mouth dropped open in outrage. Naruto exploded silently, throwing his arms up and stomping one foot to express himself.

Sakura used one hand to cover a satisfied little smile as she turned away.

28th of July, 62 f.K.

They got dinner in a village tavern in celebration of Sasuke's birthday, and as an added gift Kakashi rented out four of the beds upstairs. There would be no sleeping in bedrolls tonight.

Sakura went up first, saying with a laugh that she wanted to enjoy the feeling of a real mattress for as long as possible. Naruto followed after a few minutes, hesitantly patting Sasuke on the shoulder as he passed. Sasuke didn't respond, not even to say "Don't touch me."

Kakashi let the silence stretch out between them for longer than he probably should have. "I want talk to you about revenge."

Sasuke's gaze flicked up, assessed Kakashi, and then refocused on the empty plates on the table. He must have missed something, because Kakashi was completely serious.

"You know, your training in shinobi hand-signs is over. You are allowed to talk."

Soon after their Foundation Day celebrations Kakashi had started teaching them the silent hand-signs and signals shinobi used to communicate without speaking - with the added pressure that they still were not allowed to speak, even to ask Kakashi to repeat a lesson. Naruto, in a visible panic, had obsessed over each day's new signs until they were committed to memory. He had proceeded to bother Kakashi visually instead of audibly.

Sasuke grunted in answer.

Kakashi narrowed his eye to express his displeasure. "What happened yesterday should never have happened."

"Sasuke, cut Naruto down!"

Naruto was upside down and struggling to free himself from the rope trap with only one hand and no kunai. Sasuke ran past him and straight at one of the two hunter ninja Kakashi was keeping busy.

"You disobeyed orders."

Sasuke snorted. "Yes, this is a legitimate command structure."

Kakashi smiled grimly to himself. Sasuke wouldn't be able to see it through the mask. His hand shot out and wrapped around the back of Sasuke's neck, digging in to the tendons there. "Let's take a walk. I'd rather not do this in public."

As Kakashi pushed the boy out of the tavern ahead of him, he detected a slight scent of fear. Good. He took them out to the forest, full of dark trees and mysterious noises.

"Do you know why I told you to cut Naruto out of the trap before engaging the enemy?"

Sasuke's eyes skated off to the side. Kakashi let it go for now. "You didn't think I could take one alone." Sasuke flicked a dark look at him. "You were wrong."

"Mm, no. I guessed that you had even chances against one. But it wasn't just one, was it?"

Sasuke attacked the hunter ninja in a flurry of taijutsu. He broke away with a spray of shuriken to regain distance, teeth gritted. He formed seals - thinking rapidly. Konoha nin usually traveled in teams of at least three, this was two, there was a third somewhere - where was Naruto?

"You're lucky Naruto freed himself. You could be dead right now; the only reason you aren't is because Naruto has more regard for his teammates than you do for yours."

Sasuke dived sideways purely on instinct, out of the path of a jutsu that had been formed behind him. When he came to his feet he felt a familiar back pressed to his. "Let's get 'em, bastard. Sakura's got something special waiting for them over there."

"I know! Do you think I like being weak? I have to fight, and train, and get stronger!"


"I have to kill him!"

Kakashi watched the boy dispassionately. Back in Konoha he had empathized, understanding the pain of losing loved ones, hating them and loving them at the same time. He couldn't afford to empathize anymore; not when he had to turn out three powerful warriors in a matter of years.

"Who told you that?" he asked, already knowing.

"He did." Sasuke answered bitterly. "He told me I had to get strong enough to take revenge, kill him some day... and I will. I won't let anything hold me back."

Kakashi sighed heavily. "When I was in ANBU, I led one of the teams. Itachi was the newest member. I know a lot about your brother, Sasuke. Probably more than you ever did."

"Can you tell me how to beat him? Because if not, I don't care about anything else you have to say."

"Itachi was a good ninja, every inch the genius they thought he was. Excellent in every field he tried. But he was weak."

That startled a vicious little 'ha!' from Sasuke. "How could he be weak?! He killed my whole clan."

Kakashi crouched down, motioning for Sasuke to do the same. "How could he be strong? He killed his whole clan."

"That makes no - "

Kakashi enforced a little of the no-talking rule again. Sasuke made a short choking sound and fell silent. "Leaf ninja do not measure strength in how many people they can kill. Anyone can kill. Civilians kill each other, samurai kill each other and civilians, ninja kill whatever they're paid to. Killing is easy. No, we measure strength in how many people we can protect."

Sasuke's mouth closed at a single look from Kakashi. He wasn't done speaking yet.

"A jounin sensei is strong because he or she can protect three genin as well as the mission objective. The Hokage is the strongest ninja; through his efforts, all ninja in the village are protected. That is true strength: the ability and will to protect something other than oneself.

"Something in Itachi was weak. He was too weak to reconcile his life with his livelihood - he did not believe in the Leaf, so he had to carry all of his kills and sins alone. No one can do that. No one is strong enough for that. So we measure strength in our comrades. And so Konoha is the strongest of the ninja villages."

Sasuke said weakly, "You're wrong."

"I'm not. But I'll give you something else to think about - as if all that's not enough. Itachi was especially good at genjutsu and getting people to do what he wanted. So tell me, Sasuke, are you just going to keep doing what your brother tells you to? Or will you forge your own path?"

He left Sasuke in the woods to think. He took up the first watch and heard the boy get into his bed sometime after midnight. Perhaps something would change now.

3rd of August, 62 f.K.

A constant breeze sent the tall grass swaying like waves cresting over the hills, creating a sound almost like the wind in the leaves of Fire Country. The Land of Grass was mostly rolling hills like this one, dotted here and there with single trees or a small copse. Far ahead, the fallow fields around them gave way to farmland nearly ready to be harvested.

Kakashi stayed ten steps behind his team, watching them as they in turn watched their surroundings. Travel was a perpetual part of their lives on the run; often this meant days when they did nothing but keep a steady jog getting from one place to the next.

Naruto said something in a low tone, too low for Kakashi to hear; Sakura burst into quiet laughter and even Sasuke managed to crack a smile, looking at the boy next to him.

He was glad for them; they had adapted well, were well on their way to being exemplary ninja. Still his stomach twisted.

Was it enough? They had been so young, so unformed when he took them out of the village. It hadn't even been a year yet and they'd already changed so much. Sasuke and Naruto had both made their first kills; Kakashi had spoken with both about the dark god, to whom all dead are returned, who reveres ninja who keep secrets into the grave and also ninja who can take secrets from others. Usually it would be the Hokage to tell them about the ninja god.

Were they losing their ties to Konoha? Would they become too detached?

It had become Kakashi's third greatest fear since leaving the village, behind his team being recaptured and taken back to Danzo and having to watch his team die in front of him again. That in trying to save them and save the Leaf, he would only succeed in one.

Kakashi decided that he would need to keep reminding them of what they were fighting for. Sakura to return to her friends and family, Naruto to return and be accepted and acknowledged, perhaps even to be the Hokage - and Sasuke... who had little to tie him to the village. Yes, Kakashi knew about the Uchiha clan; his father had known and had told his son.

The Uchiha aren't loyal to the greater cause, but to their precious people. If Kakashi could bind Sasuke to his teammates tightly enough, he would follow them wherever.

Tonight, Kakashi would remind them about Konoha.

When dusk came they had three rabbits and whatever looked grown enough from the fields for dinner. The fire would be visible for miles around in the open land but there were many such smoke columns from the farmhouses around. Kakashi ate at his usual pace and finished before his genin.

He started to speak. "What's the difference between Konoha and the Leaf?"

Sakura's brows drew together. "Is that a trick question? They're the same thing."

Sasuke also seemed confused; Naruto might have been, but the boy spent most of his time with that blank look of ignorance on his face so it was hard to tell.

"Some people would say you're right, but my sensei explained it to me differently, the way his sensei explained it to him. Konoha is the village - the structures, the wall, the land we live on, and the trees and training grounds. It's the physical part of us. The Leaf, on the other hand, is something different. It is... the way of the ninja of Konoha. It's the idea of Konoha. If the village were to be destroyed, or razed to the ground and all its ninja scattered, then Konoha would be gone but the Leaf would live on.

"Ninja of the Leaf fight for our friends and teammates first and foremost. We are loyal to the Hokage for as long as the Hokage is loyal to the Leaf."

"But how do you know if the Hokage is loyal to the Leaf?" Naruto asked with his head tilted.

"It was never a problem I had to think about before, but I know now. You know it because you were born in the village, raised in it; you know because you know what the Leaf stands for in your bones. Don't you? When you think about what Danzo did, can you feel it?"

Slowly Naruto nodded, gaze turned inward. "Yeah, I can. What he did was wrong. I can't be loyal to that. But that makes me a traitor, doesn't it?"

Kakashi examined each of them. He had Sakura and Naruto, he saw that they understood and believed. But Sasuke....

Well, Kakashi had already known that the Uchiha were never loyal to the Leaf. He'd just have to settle for Sasuke being loyal to his friends.

"To Konoha, maybe we are traitors. But to the Leaf - never. The difference is subtle but there it is. We may have left Konoha, but we took the Leaf with us."

8th of October, 62 f.K.

They were on the dusty hard-packed plains of earth between the Land of Fire and the Land of Sand. For miles around it was nothing but canyon country.

Naruto slammed his hands together in the seal and six more shadow clones popped into existence around him. Two each went to Sasuke and Sakura to help them; the last two stayed with their creator. They bull-rushed into their opponent, a chuunin of Sand. The man dispatched them in moments and kept coming. Naruto had bought enough time to draw his last kunai.

He backed up another step and felt Sasuke behind him - wordlessly they pressed together and spun, swapping opponents. A flare of fire behind him told Naruto that Sasuke had released one of his fire techniques at the chuunin.

Six mores clones, all to occupy the new sand chuunin he now faced giving him enough time to speed through seals and release the wind blade technique he'd learned just last week. Immediately he knew it was too overpowered.

An overpowered wind blade was sharp enough to cut through a tree trunk and wide enough to hit three trees, but so slow that any properly warned ninja could get clear. The chuunin rolled to the side to avoid it, but underestimated just how widely Naruto had cast. A deep gash opened in the side of his abdomen.

"Ha!" Naruto exclaimed, ducking to the side to make way for Sakura leap-frogging over his back to finish the man off. He came up against the woman she'd been fighting and nearly lost an ear to the slash of the woman's bladed fan.

"That little wind trick won't work on me!" the woman taunted. That was okay; Naruto had a few tricks. He eyed the fan and decided to get in close.

Kakashi had on several occasions called Naruto's taijutsu style 'unorthodox'. While he could stick to a style and katas like a normal person, when it came down to a true fight Naruto often forgot all about this and just went with whatever felt right.

He rushed the woman, saw her eyes narrow as she slashed twice with the fan, and dodged two wind blades. When he was nearly to her he leaned back into a skid. Naruto slid the last three feet in the dust and came up right between the startled woman's legs.

She danced out of reach again of course, but instead of going forward and putting the most range between them she went to the side, leaving her unbalanced on only one leg for a single precious moment. Naruto grabbed her ankle.

He channeled chakra to his palm to stick to her and rolled out of the way when she stomped down with her other foot.

"Get off, you little shit!" she exclaimed, trying to line up another shot with her fan and giving up. He was too close.

Naruto grinned and yanked on the ankle in his hand. The woman tried to use her own chakra to keep her feet planted but it wasn't enough - she fell to one knee, and then it became a wrestling match.

He concentrated so hard on getting control of her legs that he didn't feel it at first when she started punching him in the head. Eventually it broke through the haze of battle enough that he caught her next swing and pulled on the arm, hunching her over. She was fast and tough, but Naruto was stronger. He grinned bloodily at her and saw fear flicker to life.

Naruto head-butted her.

He left the woman lying there and looked for his teammates - there was Sasuke. Why was he fighting two chuunin? And there was Sakura lying in the dirt, not moving.

Something red overcame Naruto.

He put his hands together and forgot entirely about subtlety, conserving chakra, being careful. A hundred of him appeared in a half-circle and jumped into the fight.

Sasuke dropped back from the fight breathing heavily. He muttered, "Thanks, keep them busy for a second," as Naruto passed him.

Naruto wasn't listening. He jumped in with his clones and waded to one of the knots of fighting - it was his original opponent.

"Come on, where's the real you?" the man growled, killing three clones with a single swipe of his sword.

"Right here!" Six of Naruto shouted, including the real one. Naruto jumped off the back of one of his clones and landed on the chuunin's back, sinking in the claws growing on his fingernails. The man hissed in surprise.

Pure animal instinct urged him to lean forward and deliver a spine-severing bite to the back of the man's neck, but Naruto maintained some small amount of self-control. He used his kunai.

The body beneath him crumpled. Naruto looked up and around for the last man. He was getting rid of the last of Naruto's clones not far away; at the same time that Naruto looked around so did the last chuunin, and he saw the boy crouched red-eyed and feral over the body of his comrade.

"What the hell are you?" the man murmured, not really meant to be heard. Naruto snarled - and the man fell forward, revealing Sakura standing behind him with a rock.

Naruto stared for a second before he came back to himself, turned away to let the red eyes, whiskers, and claws fade away. When he looked back he saw that Sasuke had joined Sakura and was checking the wound on her temple. Naruto stood and joined them.

"Is he dead?" Sasuke nodded at the body.

Naruto tried a grin. "Uh, yeah. I thought Sakura...."

The girl sighed and used the heel of her hand to knock him on the head. "Like I'd die on you guys. Who would keep you in line?"

Naruto laughed a little and slung an arm around both of them, pulling them all together. He remembered the first time he'd done this, some part of him scared that they would reject it - now, as then, they just moved with it as he brought their heads together.

"Come on, let's go get our headbands from sensei. Sasuke's hair looks like it's about to lose its perfect form!"

Sasuke elbowed him sharply in the side. Naruto 'oof'ed but didn't let him go.

10th of October, 62 f.K.

Naruto dropped out of the trees into their camp holding a brace of three squirrels and a rabbit. "Hey, Sakura! Seen Kakashi-sensei? I gotta ask him something."

Sitting by the unlit fire pit, Sakura looked up from sharpening her many kunai. She was nearly halfway through the pile and had entered a rather zen state. "What? Uh, last I saw he was going that way to dig us a latrine. Hopefully that means we'll be staying here for more than one night."

Naruto agreed happily and went off in the direction Sakura had pointed, humming to himself. His wounds from the practice battle two days ago had healed, Sakura's head wound hadn't had any complications, and Sasuke's worst injury had been a sprained wrist. All was well in the world.

Naruto wasn't entirely sure on the date, but he thought it might be his birthday.

He found Kakashi finishing his digging with a trench shovel, sleeves rolled up. "Hey, Kakashi-sensei," he greeted.

Kakashi waved the shovel in greeting and stepped out of his hole. "Naruto. Just who I wanted to see."

Something in the man's tone set bells ringing in Naruto's head. He wondered if ignoring them would make them go away. "Huh? What about? Oh hey, sensei, I've been trying to keep track of the days like you said but it's pretty hard. Is it October tenth? Because if it is then it's the Memorial Festival and my birthday! We should do something really special!"

Kakashi bypassed Naruto's attempt to redirect the conversation. "It's about the fight two days ago."

Naruto laughed nervously and rubbed the back of his head, with the hand not holding dead animals. "Heh, yeah, I know we weren't supposed to kill anyone; I didn't really mean to. I just...." His head dropped down and to the side.

"You got angry."

Naruto's eyes flicked up underneath drawn brows, and the careless grin fell. "Yeah." he confirmed.


The boy's head shot up in alarm; it was as though he already knew what was coming. Kakashi met his gaze fearlessly.

"We have to tell them about the fox."

Chapter Text

11th of January, 63 f.K.

As night fell in the capitol city of the Land of Fire, shops along the streets closed their doors and turned out their lights. The shopkeepers ascended to their homes above their stores or walked leisurely down the street to the residential districts, passing the familiar faces of their peers doing the same. Far from these reputable people and their shiny businesses, other kinds of business started opening up.

The red lanterns strung over the streets declared this the 'seedy' part of town. They cast a hellish glow on the people walking the packed dirt and gravel road with their heads down, gave the deep shadows fuzzy edges. It was the sort of place where a person could be robbed without anyone else even turning an eye; where you didn't walk alone unless you had a very good reason.

One shadowy figure, underneath an overhanging canopy, saw a man coming down the street seemingly alone. The figure nudged the man next to him, pointing the guy out - he was getting closer. He was walking tall and unconcerned, as though he had no idea that he wasn't in the part of town where the police bothered to go.

The two men detached from the wall they'd been leaning against, spreading out as they approached. At the last second, mere feet from him, the lone man seemed to notice them.

His lazy half-lidded eyes opened fully, revealing one that was bright red and spinning. The man smiled invitingly to show a mouth full of sharp inhuman teeth. The two men tripped and stumbled in their haste to get away from the demon who had come down to walk Sweet Flower Street.

Kakashi watched them go and sighed as he dropped the illusion. It had probably been a mistake to scare them so badly, but it would have been a greater mistake to allow them to engage in combat with him. And anyway, he had a meeting to get to.

Not that his target knew there was a meeting.

He scanned the buildings as he passed them. Most were dilapidated, in need of paint or more serious repairs. Some residences, some places of business for fences or smugglers, and here and there a whorehouse lit up with bright lighting - advertising massages, baths, and anything except for the service they actually provided.

Finally he found the right one. He checked his disguise - an average-looking man in a working-class job, unmarried and not looking to be - and pulled the door open.

There was a small barroom on the other side, just big enough to hold patrons while they drank and chose their girls. To the left a wide staircase with a sturdy rail against the wall, bar straight ahead, couch and chair seating arranged around low tables to the right. Not the worst place Kakashi had ever been in.

His target was sitting on one of the couches to the right, a young woman on either side. All three looked to be well into their cups and getting worse, judging by the half-full drinks in each one's hand. The man gestured wildly as Kakashi watched, saying something loud and slurred. The women laughed, a pitched tittering sound that they could keep up all night.

Kakashi dragged the least-stained armchair over directly in front of the couch and sat down. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and waited.

The man took a few seconds to notice. "Hey, this is a private party! You should leave."

Kakashi made a show of looking around the public barroom and then pointedly back at his target. "This isn't exactly private."

This appeared to confuse him for a moment. Then he waved one hand drunkenly, sloshing all three drinks. "Y'know what I mean. Don't want you watchin' me ya little... creep. Get yer rocks off somewhere else."

Kakashi sighed. "Knock it off, Jiraiya. You know who I am."

The tension came to a head, poised to fall either way. For that long moment Jiraiya simply looked at him - trying to judge whether he should continue the charade or drop it in favor of more candid conversation.

Finally he murmured, "Ladies, I'm afraid we'll have to continue this another time."

The women exchanged a look between themselves and left without another word. Likely they knew, or at least suspected, that this situation had a good chance of getting violent.

Jiraiya leaned forward, mimicking Kakashi's position. "So, what does the latest traitor to Konoha want with me?"

Kakashi's eye twitched. "I want to clarify some things for you. This isn't the place. Upstairs?"

Jiraiya nodded and stood. At the stairs he produced a fold of money and handed it over to the man standing guard there. "A little extra - don't let us be disturbed."

As a mark of the place's dedication to discretion, the guard didn't even look funny at Kakashi following Jiraiya up to an unoccupied room in the hall above the bar.

They rearranged themselves at the little table in the room, which was set up like a motel - shower, large bed, table and chairs, and a few strategically placed mirrors. Kakashi sat and noticed that Jiraiya was in the same position as himself again. He suppressed a sigh.

"Stop that. I'm not crazy; you don't need to make me believe you're on my side."

Jiraiya raised a brow but didn't otherwise move. "You left Konoha. I'd like to know why before I drag you back there. And I'd like to know what you did with your students, too."

"I left because I knew that Danzo Shimura killed the Third, and that I had no way to prove it. I left because I knew that the last barrier stopping that man from having complete control in the village had been removed. I left because my genin needed the kind of protection that only distance and desperation can provide." Kakashi was nearly snarling by the end of it - not helpful to proving that he wasn't crazy, but he had been pushing down on this frustration for a long time. "Mostly, I left because there were no allies left in Konoha who could have helped me. Believe me when I say I'd die before I would be a traitor to the Leaf."

Jiraiya sat impassive and expressionless through Kakashi's tirade. "Are you done?" Kakashi nodded. "Tell me everything."

Kakashi did. He told Jiraiya about Danzo and Root infiltrating ANBU, about the ANBU who had been on duty, about the 'interim Hokage' who would never step down. He told Jiraiya that he had been recruited into Root once, that there had already been at least one failed assassination attempt, that Kakashi had no real concrete proof except for the bone-deep knowledge that Danzo was capable and willing.

He finished with, "Even if the Hokage's death was truly an accident of nature, I know that what Danzo wants to do to Konoha is not right. He will warp everything the Leaf stands for; he must be stopped. That is why we left."

Jiraiya looked distinctly unimpressed. "So? What gives you the right to decide whether Danzo's leading Konoha right or not? It's a ninja village, a dictatorship. Whoever is in charge makes the rules; it doesn't matter if they're different rules from the last guy who was in charge. Sounds to me like you are a traitor; you just don't want to admit it." Jiraiya leaned back and spread his hands. "This is how every ninja village works. Do you think ninja in Mist like the way that place is run? How about Rain? Yet somehow they manage to still be loyal. Face it, Hatake, you're a rogue-nin."

Kakashi gritted his teeth and stamped down on the fury in his stomach. "I am not! We will be coming back. And when we do, we're going to set things right."

Jiraiya's entire demeanor changed in an instant. He went from belligerent and dismissive to quietly interested. "So that's it. You want to kill the Hokage."

Kakashi shut his eyes and breathed deeply. He'd slipped up, he'd forgotten how good at this Jiraiya was. The man had gone straight for Kakashi's weakest point and poked at it until Kakashi blurted secrets mindlessly. He muttered, "Yeah, that's the plan."

"I can work with that. I assume you've been teaching those little brats all this time? I'd like to meet them soon, especially my student's son. Need to take a look at his seal. I guess I can help with their training a bit, but I'll be a bit busy setting things up back in the village - "

"Wait, what? Not three minutes ago you were talking about how it doesn't matter because Danzo is in the right as the Hokage of Konoha."

Jiraiya looked up pensively, rubbing the back of his head. "Well, yeah, that's true. But I've been to Mist and Rain and they're horrible places. I'm not gonna let that happen to Konoha. That's my home." His head dropped back down; he pierced Kakashi with a cold and savage gaze. "I said what I did because I want to know that you understand what's happening. What we are going to be doing is exercising that old adage that might makes right. We're going to kill the Hokage because my conscience demands nothing less and I think your reasons are the same. But to someone else - we're just traitors, killing our leader so that we may rise to power instead. Remember that, Hatake. Plenty of people out there aren't going to understand."

After a few long moments' thought, Kakashi nodded.

Jiraiya smiled wryly. "Got it? Good. Because depending on how this goes, you might never be allowed back into the village you're trying so hard to save. They might never forgive you. You could be killed for your crimes, or worse - spend the rest of your life as an exile. Are those acceptable outcomes." Kakashi nodded without a moment's hesitation. "Alright then. Meet me here tomorrow morning - I want to see the brats and we need to go over plans." Jiraiya waved a hand at the door. "Now get out. You interrupted my relaxation time and I'd like to get back to it."

Kakashi fled.

12th of January, 63 f.K.

In the morning, Kakashi met Jiraiya outside the brothel on Sweet Flower Street. They kept a fast pace out of the city, and once in the forest took to the tree branches. Kakashi led the way to a dense copse of trees and underbrush, ten minute's run from the city limits, and once there made a bird-call.

"This is him?" Sasuke asked from behind the two of them. Both whirled, taken by surprise, as Sasuke dropped from the crook of a branch. Wrapped in a mottled brown, black, and green cloak, he'd been as good as invisible and suppressing his chakra.

At Jiraiya's considering look, Kakashi shrugged. "I've been understandably focused on hiding techniques. Sasuke is very good at them, but the other two aren't far behind. Naruto, I swear to the dark god, if that paint touches me I will pull out three of your teeth." He said this without turning around or changing his conversational tone.

Naruto, about to throw a paint-bomb from his position hanging upside down on a branch, pouted and dropped the pink ball. He asked, "This is the great Sage Jiraiya?"

"Yes. Where's Sakura?" Kakashi looked around.

There was no warning: The earth beneath Kakashi's feet erupted into a pair of hands which grabbed his ankles and pulled him into the ground up to his waist. Once he stopped moving, the man sighed and put one hand on his forehead. "This is not the kind of first impression I wanted to make."

Sakura pulled herself out of the ground in front of Kakashi, grinning happily. "Sorry, sensei - but look how good I am at that Earth technique now! I solved the problem with the ground vibrating when I use it." She turned to the side and bowed. "Hello, Jiraiya-sama. I'm Sakura Haruno, that's Sasuke Uchiha, and Naruto Uzumaki. We are honored to meet you."

Jiraiya waved off the introductions. "Looks like you kids are pretty good; Hatake's been training you well. I'm going to fill in any gaps."

"Can you really teach Naruto to use the Nine-tails' chakra?" Sasuke demanded as he came around to stand next to Sakura. Naruto swung down from the tree and joined them.

Jiraiya shot a look at Kakashi. "So, I guess that fox is out of the bag."

Kakashi didn't look at all contrite. "They deserved to know. They're a team." He decided it was time to get out of the hole. His neck was starting to get a crick from looking up at people.

"Well, can ya?" Naruto demanded.

Jiraiya grunted noncommittally. "Probably."

"Excuse me," Sakura stepped forward, sending one glance at Kakashi and then turning back to Jiraiya. "Kakashi-sensei wouldn't give us a straight answer before. He's spent almost a year keeping us away from all other ninja; why did he bring you in on this? What are you going to do that he can't?"

Jiraiya laughed loudly, causing all four to flinch and check the perimeter. Even when agitated, none of them had spoken above a normal tone in some time. "I can do a lot that your teacher can't, kid. I have access to people and resources that he doesn't. We haven't discussed it in words, but I expect he wants me to start infiltrating the village to set things up so that you can return and kill the Hokage as efficiently as possible, and perhaps even limit the chance that you'll be executed for it."

Jiraiya looked back to confirm it; Kakashi nodded.

"So then, I'll need to know a bit about you all to start the planning. Something like this isn't going to come together in a few months, you know."

13th of January, 63 f.K.

Naruto sat with his back against a tree, knees pulled halfway up and his hands between them holding a balloon. He frowned in concentration. The balloon trembled a little but otherwise didn't move.

Jiraiya left him there and looked around the dense foliage for Kakashi. Sounds of thrashing to the left indicated that Sasuke and Sakura were still sparring; Jiraiya found their teacher not far from there, watching them fight.

"He's started learning the Rasengan?" Kakashi asked.

Jiraiya nodded. "Yeah, although he's not happy about how long it's gonna take. Says he'll do it faster." Jiraiya chuckled. "Maybe he can, too. He's not like his father. Minato was a genius, but he knew how to take it slow."

Kakashi hummed in agreement, not taking his eye of his students. He'd changed from civilian clothes back into ninja armor like his students wore: chest plate, loose pants, sandals, and weapons pouches.

"I want to take Naruto on as an apprentice. Teach him things I taught his father, how to control the Nine-tails, toad-summoning; that sort of thing. I'll take him away for a year and bring him back when he's done."

Kakashi's eye slid lazily to the side to look at Jiraiya. He pretended to consider the proposal. "No."

"Do you have a reason why not?"

Kakashi shrugged carelessly. Jiraiya still noticed the new tension in the air; the younger man was preparing for a physical fight. "They are my team. They stick together and they stick with me. Taking Naruto away at this point would irreparably damage the dynamics they've already established. Also, I just don't want you to."

Jiraiya thought about this for a few long moments. Finally he offered: "I could just take him."

"Probably," Kakashi shrugged again. "But you'd have to fight me. And keep him from finding out that I didn't let him go willingly. I won't tell you any of our code phrases; in fact the first time you use hand-signs and don't know his name-sign he'll know something is wrong."

Jiraiya laughed, and the tension broke with a nearly audible snap. "That's true, it's way too much trouble. I wonder if you hate yourself enough to give him Minato's old name-sign!"

Kakashi's mouth twisted into a wry smile, unseen. "Yes, I do. But not enough to give Sakura and Sasuke my teammates' name-signs, so perhaps there's hope for me yet."

"Well, since I can't take him I'll be hanging around until he's got the concepts of the Rasengan down. I can help with the brats' training for that long."

"I'm glad you said that." Kakashi turned to smile meanly at him. "I want you to take Sakura on as an apprentice instead. I don't mean for you to take her on a training trip - just teach her when you're around. She has the aptitude to be an excellent spymaster."

"The girl? What are you up to Kakashi?"

Kakashi tilted his head back toward where Naruto was sitting with his balloon. "Naruto looks a lot like his father, doesn't he?"

Jiraiya was visibly confused for a moment, which transitioned into stunned enlightenment and then to admiration. "Oh, that's shameless. You conniving little shit. Was this the plan from the beginning?"

"Hm. Somewhat. It occurred to me before we even left the village, but it wasn't until only a few months ago, when Naruto started maturing a little, that I thought it would be at all possible."

Jiraiya laughed incredulously. "You want to kill the Hokage and set up your student to take his place! That's ballsy even for you, Copycat. You're so luck you have me to help. On that note, I've already sent a clone off to set some things in motion in Konoha. Do you have any names?"

"Tenzo, almost anyone from the Nara clan, and Kahori Takimoto to start. Tenzo is in ANBU and Kahori runs a surprising amount of the administration in the Hokage building. The Nara clan are analytical." Kakashi frowned in thought. "Also Iruka Umino, Naruto's old Academy teacher. I don't know how much use that position will be, but according to Naruto he's trustworthy; I'm inclined to believe it."

"Alright - " There was a small explosion from Naruto's vicinity, followed by a shout. Jiraiya sighed. "I'll go check on him."

10th of April, 64 f.K.

" - another new person. I just got used to that pervert Jiraiya! Although he does know some pretty cool ninjutsu." Naruto admitted grudgingly. "Hey, Kakashi-sensei, how much farther to Sendai? Are we gonna get to walk around like last time? Sasuke's almost out of ninja wire and I need new sandals."

Kakashi turned his gaze to the heavens and begged, but no salvation came. "Naruto, I need you to shut up."

That brought the boy up short. He stopped walking and glanced around. "Enemies?" he murmured.

"No - " Kakashi stopped, head tilted. "Yes? Sasuke."

Sasuke's eyes flickered red and he scanned the forest around them. He started signing: Six enemy ninja, three left three right, moving away from us.

Kakashi's brow furrowed. Moving away? Then, he heard a familiar voice around a bend in the dirt road and coming closer.

They'd been hoping to ambush their target outside Sendai as she moved on from the city, so they were walking a leisurely pace along the road, in disguise as a country family again.

Forward, quickly. Kakashi signed, and they went on the move again. Naruto started yammering, keeping up his disguise as a chatty wife, and Sakura managed a few tense responses to him. They rounded the bend and found their target and her apprentice surrounded by four of the ninja Sasuke had warned them about. One of them was speaking to their target, too low to be heard.

Kakashi flung out his arms to protect his 'family', muttering for them to stay back. One of the enemy ninja flicked a glance at their group. "Move along; this isn't your business." He growled.

Kakashi nodded and made his voice shaky as he said: "You're blocking the road."

"Find another path," The same ninja growled. Kakashi saw their target make a rude gesture and turn away from the ninja she'd been talking to.

"Yeah, I don't think so." Kakashi said as the target punched the ninja who had tried to attack her from behind. For a moment the man who had been speaking to them was distracted between his teammates and Kakashi's uncharacteristic words, and the confusion cost him. Kakashi attacked.

"Keep the others off the girl!" Kakashi ordered his team as he closed with the other ninja, gesturing at their target's apprentice. Immediately he knew the man was jounin level, although his scratched Stone headband made him a rogue-nin.

Sakura and Naruto double-teamed another of the four visible ninja, with Naruto diving in for a fistfight while Sakura kept back. The jounin they faced focused on Sakura and tried to overpower Naruto long enough to get to her; he underestimated what a hassle Naruto would be. The boy summoned five clones and distracted the man long enough that Sakura could throw a kunai right through a shadow clone and into their enemy's shoulder.

The kunai landed in the trapezius muscle; a debilitating strike. The man grunted and fell to his knees, one hand coming up to the wound to put pressure. Naruto knocked him out and looked around.

Sasuke had split from them to take care of the two ninja hiding in the trees. He had flushed both out, but was now barely surviving the battle against both at the same time. Naruto's piercing whistle was all the warning Sasuke had, but it was all he needed; the boy tucked and rolled forward, coming up right in front of one of his opponents and leaving his back open to the other, face-to-face and with the Sharingan spinning wildly.

He went for the woman's legs with a sweep of his foot, but she jumped that and threw her own strike; Sasuke leaned back to avoid it. He gathered a small amount of chakra in his palms and struck them off each other in a motion reminiscent of dusting them off. Sparks flew from between his hands straight into the woman's eyes.

She flinched away violently, putting even more distance between them. Sasuke sped through the seals and released a fireball, which she just barely managed to dodge. He pulled out kunai and started throwing. She was fast enough to dodge all but one, but she was squarely on the defensive. Sasuke leaped forward to make it a taijutsu fight that he could end easily.

Naruto had engaged with the other ninja Sasuke had been facing, again teaming up with Sakura. Their opponent had a katana and wasn't shy of using it on the first wave of clones Naruto sent at him.

Naruto glanced at Sakura. "Keep him busy," he ordered as he summoned even more clones, which went at the man in waves. One stayed beside Naruto, whose hand was held down in a distinctive way.

She nodded grimly and jumped into the fray. She Henge'd into Naruto's visage and weaved around the enemy's katana, making close strikes with the two kunai in her hands. The man didn't seem to take notice of her as different from the dozen other Narutos he was facing at any given time.

Not long after, Naruto's clones cleared out of the way like the sea parting, allowing the real one to come sprinting right up to their enemy. His eyes went wide and then dull; Naruto had ducked under his wild swing of the blade and thrust the Rasengan through the man's heart.

Kakashi's opponent was unfortunately smart enough to dispel Kakashi's Henge at the first chance he got. The man took one look - mask, headband, silver hair - and tried to run. Kakashi yanked on the ninja wire he'd lassoed around the rogue-nin's ankle a few moments ago and brought him crashing down.

He rolled immediately and tried to regain his feet, but Kakashi's Chidori to his chest stopped that nonsense right away. Kakashi looked up to see his three genin handling the last two ninja efficiently, and then looked for the target: Princess Tsunade of Konoha.

She was tending to an unconscious ninja with a kunai sticking out of the back of his shoulder. She pulled out the kunai and looked up to throw it at Kakashi, slow enough for him to snatch it out of the air. "Your kids aren't very careful with their enemies." she commented.

"I didn't tell them not to kill." Kakashi shrugged, ambling closer to her.

"And I didn't say I needed Copycat Kakashi's help. What do you want?"

Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura joined them then, skirting Tsunade and her apprentice nervously to stand next to Kakashi. Their teacher put his hands in his pockets and ventured, "We were hoping to enlist your help in killing Danzo Shimura."

30th of May, 64 f.K.

"You ever think you're not doing the right thing by them?"

Kakashi glanced up as he brushed his hands together and threw off a shower of sparks onto the tinder in front of him. The fire caught. As he fed it larger pieces, he asked, "What do you mean?"

Tsunade sighed and folded her arms, looking down at him from across the fire pit. Her head tilted. "You know what I mean. You say you took them out of Konoha because Danzo would take them and manipulate them to his own ends - so how is what you're doing any different?"

The new flames died out in front of Kakashi, that was how long he stared distantly at the ground in front of Tsunade's feet; thinking. The thoughts came to him slowly but clearly, ringing like bells right down to his core.

What she said was utterly true, but he wanted to deny it.

"I...." his voice faltered even at the beginning, as he followed the words and found they led to lies. Kakashi wasn't in the habit of telling himself lies. "It's...."

Tsunade snorted; she had been watching him, her derision growing. "You've never thought about it before? Shinobi, know thyself."

Kakashi bared his teeth in a snarl. Contempt, at least, he knew how to deal with. And Kakashi was in the habit of being cruel to himself. "It's not different in the way you want, I suppose." He shot a poisonous look up at the woman standing over him, and he stood too. "If you want to believe that I'm doing essentially the same thing as Danzo Shimura, then you may. But I think we both know this is different."

Tsunade nodded, a little thoughtful. Still she challenged, "How?"

I'm not changing them, Kakashi almost blurted. It would have been a lie. He had changed all his genin irrevocably. Naruto was calmer and more assured; Sasuke less unstable; Sakura more outspoken and definitely more powerful. And while Kakashi might call these changes for the better, someone somewhere would surely disagree.

I'm not hurting them, came next; but Kakashi had assuredly hurt his genin. He had to. They were soldiers first and foremost. Even early on, learning hand-signs in silence, he had silenced them violently. That was pain for the purpose of learning and manipulation, same as any Danzo might have inflicted.

I'm doing this for the village.

But then, that was the same reason the traitor in the Hokage's hat would give.

"It's not different." Kakashi said again. "Except where I feel it is. If that's not enough, if you can't feel the difference too, then leave. Now. And when we retake Konoha, don't ever come back. Clearly you won't belong there anyway."

Tsunade huffed and rolled her eyes; she backed down. "I just wanted to know if you'd realized, Hatake. You might have done them a favor taking them out of that village, but you didn't save them. They're still shinobi, and shinobi always die."

Kakashi opened his mouth to answer her, but crashing in the branches to his left drew his attention that way. Naruto came rocketing out of the foliage, breathing heavily as though he had sprinted all the way from where he was traing with Jiraiya while Sasuke and Sakura had medic lessons with Shizune.

"Jiraiya... says... hunters... close on us.... Leave now." Naruto panted, already moving around camp gathering their packs together. "He'll slow them down as much as he can without blowing cover."

Kakashi shot one last vicious glance at Tsunade and gave a piercingly loud bird-call: the hunting screech of a falcon. A little out of place in the forest, but it would get Sasuke and Sakura back to camp quickly.

"Did Jiraiya have any other information?" Kakashi demanded. He was nearly done destroying the fire pit.

Naruto answered, "He just said 'Go North'."

9th of June, 64 f.K.

North they had gone, fleeing with the sort of hard-won speed that had always kept them ahead of pursuers before. It was shinobi traveling at its pinnacle, covering distances that war strategists would salivate over. They disrupted normal sleep schedules in favor of stopping for half-hour naps every few hours. This made the days blur together endlessly, distorting all impression of time.

It felt as though it had been both two days and twenty when they stopped ten days later to restock. Kakashi looked at his students; all three were breathing deeply but not exhausted just yet. He looked back out over the barren land between the end of the Land of Lightning and the beginning of the Land of Snow, water lapping at the shore to his left.

With Lightning on the right side and the Land of Earth on the left, Dawn Lake was a massive body of water. Kakashi's team had skirted its edges on their flight. Dawn Lake's Northern bank belonged to the Land of Snow, a beautiful but mountainous region rather separated from the rest of the world. Lightning's famous mountain ridge continued out of its top border and grew both up and out into Snow.

It was perfect for hiding because no one in their right mind would attempt to survive in such a place.

They had stopped at the foot of the mountains, far from the rocky beach of the lake.

"We'll camp here for the night and then head into the Land of Snow." Kakashi stated as he dropped the pack off his back. He felt oddly light without it.

Sakura nodded once and collapsed to the ground. Naruto flicked his hand in a sign to request chakra usage; Kakashi nodded, so the boy made two clones who set about gathering flammable materials for a fire. Then Naruto clomped off himself to go hunting, feet heavy with weariness.

Sasuke watched him go. Normally the boy would push himself to keep up with his teammate's nearly endless energy, but he'd stopped doing it as much after finding out about the Nine-tails. Sasuke took his eyes off Naruto and carefully crouched down next to Sakura.

"Come on," he urged softly. "You know we have to stretch. We have to be able to move tomorrow."

The girl sighed and twisted her shoulders out of the pack straps. Sasuke dumped his as well; they went through the stretches together.

Kakashi went out to set up the perimeter traps and scout the area. He came back to the camp to find a small smokeless fire and a skinned animal already roasting over it. One creature that size didn't meet even two shinobi's dietary requirements, let alone four; but in this rather barren part of the world Kakashi couldn't hope for much better.

Kakashi took the second watch as usual; when Sasuke woke him, he stood to get his blood flowing again and nodded at the boy. Sasuke crawled into Kakashi's still-warm bedroll and was asleep within seconds.

The jounin stepped silently out of camp and found a secluded niche in the rock-face to watch from with his back protected.

The night was calm and nearly silent, but Kakashi didn't feel sleepy. Partly his training, and partly something nagging on the edge of his senses. It wasn't enough to wake his genin over.

The wind picked up, audible across the plain land as it pushed tiny pebbles and dust around. The wind, something about the wind....

Kakashi could hear it blowing, but he felt none of it touching himself.

"I do so love the wind now," the air spoke to him in a soft voice from his past.

Pale pink smoke swirled and gathered in front of Kakashi, who held himself very still. The smoke condensed into the form of a young woman in form-fitting white clothing, with flyaway brown hair and dark brown eyes underscored by those freckles he remembered so well.

"Yukimi," Kakashi breathed. Distantly he considered whistling to wake his genin, if only to have them make sure he wasn't hallucinating.

"Hello, Kakashi." She grinned so widely, so happily, and rushed forward to hug him. Kakashi held himself absolutely still until she let go. Finally she pulled back and regarded him with a more appraising eye. "I have news for you."

"Man, I wish Yukimi would have come with us." Naruto complained.

Danzo's agents may have been hot on their tail, but they would soon be looking in the exact wrong place. Kakashi's team wasn't heading for the Land of Snow; they were going to slide East along the Lightning-Snow border and eventually come down the opposite side of Lightning.

The problem was that it wasn't only Danzo hunting them.

"I hear things on the wind," Yukimi had explained. "When the winds blow right I can hear you - and I can hear those following you. There's two sets of them, Kakashi. What have you gotten yourself into now?"

Yukimi had loved his kids of course, and taken to Naruto straight away. But it had only been a few hours' meeting before they had to go: The team to run again, and Yukimi to return to her business in the Land of Snow.

Kakashi summoned Pakkun and explained the situation, ending with orders to track down Jiraiya and report this new information; if the man didn't already know, he would soon.

And then he could tell Kakashi just who else wanted his genin.

21st of June, 64 f.K.

Pakkun found them again at midday twelve days later, camping in a tiny valley in the Land of Lightning. It was an easy find near the end; Naruto and Sasuke were involved in one of their few no-holds-barred sparring sessions, and there was copious amounts of smoke, lightning, screaming, and explosions.

Kakashi still sort of regretted teaching Naruto how to make his clones explode.

When Pakkun showed up, Kakashi called an end to the bout and knelt down on one knee to receive the message; Pakkun relayed it word-for-word, as he'd been taught. The rest of Team Seven gathered around.

"Thanks for the tip-off, Hatake, this makes sense out of a lot of little things. I've been able to track down your second set; they're ninja from Hidden Sound, tasked by the Master of Sound to capture the last Uchiha and bring him back for human experimentation. The Master is, of course, our old friend Orochimaru."

Kakashi swore violently; this was all he needed. More pieces of his past coming back. At least, with Yukimi, not all of them were bad.

Pakkun's voice dropped his 'Jiraiya' inflection. "He gave me another message, but he said to give it to you in private." Pakkun's head tilted pointedly. "Without the genin."

Kakashi's eye flicked around to all three of them who had been watching Pakkun but were now looking at him. If he told them to, they would go.

"Just tell us." Kakashi ordered, fixing his eye back on the dog. Pakkun nodded.

"There's more, I don't think it would be beneficial for the kids to be worrying about it. Orochimaru is chasing Sasuke, but there's someone else hunting down the Jinchuuriki. They call themselves Akatsuki and they are all S-class ninja. I don't know what they want with the Tailed Beasts yet but it can't be good. Keep Naruto safe and run from anyone in a black cloak with red clouds.

"One last thing: I have an unconfirmed report that Itachi Uchiha is a member of Akatsuki."

Kakashi's head shot up; Sasuke's eyes were a murderous red.

15th of May, 65 f.K.

The village of Upriver was a new offshoot of the village called Downriver; they were separated by about twelve miles of hills and a river. The people of Upriver were made up of four extended families who had been feuding with the four families left in Downriver for the last hundred years.

The first thing Upriver had done upon establishment was build a dam for fishing, which was the first strike against Downriver. The second was the decreased flow of water making irrigation of crops even more difficult.

The third was that the dam was poorly made, and broke during the second spring's hard rains.

Downriver was devastated by the sudden flood and receiving no help from Upriver, who had replied by telling them they had a dam to repair. The Lord of the area, a distant and taxing figure, denied them aid. He cited bad yields and poor coffers, but in truth Downriver didn't produce enough for him to tax and so he didn't care about them.

Four days after that flood, two strangers came into town. They walked carefully around the half-ruined foundations of houses, picked their way through rubble and smashed wood, and finally stopped at the village leader's tent.

This was overheard: "When are you coming back?" the younger one asked. He had yellow hair, bright blue eyes, and whisker-marks on his cheeks.

The older man shrugged. "About a month. Stop worrying. Jiraiya can take care of Sakura and Tsunade can teach Sasuke more about debilitating the body than anyone."

"Yeah, but I don't understand why I'm here."

The man, who had strange silver hair that half-hid an eyepatch, reached out and ruffled the boy's hair. "Because I want you out of my way while I investigate some things. Besides, these people could use some help. You love helping people."

The boy ducked away from the hand in his hair. "Yeah, alright," he muttered.

"One more thing, kid," the man reached out and ruffled the other's blond hair, then yanked on it briefly as he pulled away. "Stop cutting this for a little while. I'll tell you later."

The younger man frowned in obvious confusion, but nodded. "Okay I guess. Get going, sensei. And don't be late!"

16th of June, 65 f.K.

Kakashi returned to Downriver a month later, more or less. If one were to ask Naruto, he would say 'more'.

"You're late!" He shouted at the figure walking down the newly cobbled main road of the village.

Kakashi just waved in lieu of answering, as though Naruto had shouted a greeting instead.

When Naruto's sensei got to the beginning of the cobbled road, he looked down in mock surprise and then back up at Naruto, raising the eyebrow not hidden by the black eyepatch.

Naruto grinned. "Did I do good, sensei?"

Kakashi looked around the village. There were freshly-built stone and wooden houses, most of them with two levels, a three-level inn, what appeared to be a public park, decorative stones lining the main road, and - most importantly - protections against another flood from the river.

Kakashi's head tilted to the side, almost an approving nod. "Well enough."

An older man in his forties approached Naruto from the doorway of the inn. He put one hand almost possessively on Naruto's shoulder and leaned in. "This is your teacher, Naruto?" he asked.

Naruto nodded, still smiling like an idiot. Kakashi approved!

Kakashi rocked forward and back on his feet, as though impatient. "I've come to collect him. We have work to do."

"Can I say goodbye to everyone first? It'll only take a second! We were all having a going-away breakfast feast." Naruto jabbed his thumb over his shoulder at the inn, where indeed many curious faces were poking out of the open-air windows and the doorway.

Kakashi nodded, and Naruto took off.

"He's a very special boy, that one." The village leader commented. The man was sizing Kakashi up.

"You are the village leader, correct?" Kakashi asked.

"Tadashi." The man stuck out his hand. "I was before and will be again, when this one leaves."

Naruto grinned, showing a lot of sharp canines. "Don't act like I didn't have to fight you tooth and nail for it."

Kakashi reassessed. There was an undercurrent of tension in Tadashi: a conflict that had been resolved but not forgotten. Perhaps Naruto's progress here hadn't been as easy as it seemed.

Naruto came out of the inn amongst calls to return someday. He rejoined Kakashi and they made a Western heading, although not for long. Out of sight, their direction changed.

Kakashi asked, "So how was it?"

Naruto rubbed the back of his head. "Eh. I just showed up and started working. Made a bunch of clones every day - that really helped out, let me tell you. We must have deforested half the land to build that place up again. And the forest is gonna be cropland now. Dug them some better irrigation. Best thing I did was make them a better flood wall."

"And Tadashi?"

Naruto shrugged. "He didn't like that people started coming to me instead of him. We had some words about it - just words, they all knew that violence wouldn't get them anywhere. We made peace. How was your errand?"

Black cloaks with red cloud patterns had been spotted near all three of the villages that were now missing jinchuuriki.

"It was informative, but not fruitful. Pakkun is on his way to Jiraiya, Sakura, and Sasuke with the report."

Naruto jumped a little. "We're going to join them now, right?"

Kakashi nodded. "Oh, yes. I think it's time Team Seven got back together."

19th of November, 65 f.K.

The noon sun was fiercely hot when Kakashi signed for a lunch break at a traveler's rest spot in the Land of Earth. The rest station was little more than a lean-to maintained by forward-thinking travelers as they passed through, set back a little ways from a fork in the road.

They relaxed and ate in the shade, more comfortable here farther away from home and the hunters. Naruto, finishing first, took to idly poking Sasuke, who tried to outlast the annoyance but eventually gave in and started a kick-fight.

Kakashi cleared his throat pointedly only a few moments after Sakura was dragged into it. Their sensei was standing up, arms folded against his chest, one eyebrow raised judgmentally.

Sakura flushed, Sasuke pretended he didn't want to do the same, and Naruto just grinned and hopped to his feet. "Let's go!" he exclaimed, ready to get moving again.

"Come back here, Naruto. We're not leaving just yet."

Naruto heard something in Kakashi's voice; he quieted and came back to stand next to his teammates.

Kakashi took a deep breath and felt something in his chest flutter. He was used to being perfectly in control of himself, but this kind of elation would not be suppressed; he didn't want it to be.

"It's almost time to go home." Kakashi said. He took pleasure in the raw excitement he saw in his team's eyes. "I have to split from you here - you'll make your own way home. I won't tell you how. I trust that you can do this on your own. There are only a few more things to set up for our return, which Jiraiya and I will be taking care of. Your only instruction is to reach Konoha on the first day of the new year."

The goodbye wasn't tearful or heartbreaking; Kakashi purposefully hadn't cultivated that kind of relationship with his team. Naruto beamed and said, "See you later, then!" and Sasuke and Sakura both nodded. From the look in her eye, Kakashi estimated that Sakura was the only one who fully understood what was to come.

As their paths diverged and Kakashi walked away, he examined the structure of his team in his mind. It had been a long, hard road to bring them here. It was for the best that Sakura be the one to understand; she had the training from Jiraiya, the side-ways thought patterns and readiness for cunning, which could have been taught to Naruto and Sasuke as well. But Naruto couldn't know it because to do so would ruin part of what made him a great leader: that untouchable core of righteousness. And Sasuke couldn't know it, could never know it, because Kakashi feared that it would awaken things in him and open his eyes to shadows that weren't there.

Sasuke was the most fragile of them. Tied to his teammates with the strongest bonds Kakashi could find, and still the jounin saw futures where he cut ties and left. He was much less worried about this outcome knowing what he did of Naruto's character.

Naruto's possessiveness of people could very well have been a manifestation of the fox inside him; Jiraiya had told Kakashi of old legends about the Tailed Beasts who had once been Lords of the land. Regardless of the source, it made him a fierce and charismatic leader; people saw in Naruto a person who was worth following.

Yes, Kakashi's team had done well. Now it was up to Kakashi to bring them home safely - with or without him.

28th of December, 65 f.K.

"Hey, jerk," Naruto called as he tried his level best to drive a Rasengan through all three of Sasuke's Shadow Clones. "What do you think sensei has planned for the new year?"

"Shut up, retard!"

Sasuke jumped out of the ground behind Naruto, but didn't get his debilitating strike for two reasons: that Naruto was in fact a clone, and Sakura had just thrown a massive jet of boiling water at the both of them. Naruto burst; Sasuke swore loudly and switched himself out for a rock half his size.

Sakura tried to get out too, but more of Naruto swarmed her before she could move. They dog-piled and rolled her away from the ground, knowing that she had complete mastery of the jutsu that allowed her to move through the earth.

Sakura shrieked her outrage and flexed chakra off of her skin in all directions, breaking the chakra-sticky hold Naruto always used. She kicked away from the fray of him and sank into the welcoming earth. In the ground her senses were limited, but opened up a way of seeing with the vibrations of the earth. She knew it when Sasuke charged Naruto again, and poked her head up to see.

Naruto was throwing off chakra in waves as he sent wind blade after wind blade at Sasuke. Sasuke dodged all but two, and these left bleeding gashes on his forearms put up to protect his core. Naruto had his hands in a sign right before Sasuke punched him.

He dropped to one knee clutching his head, eyes rolling wildly. A fully powered punch to the head could crush a human's skull, but all three knew that such a blow only rattled Naruto for a few moments. Sasuke had banked on only needing those few moments.

He had been wrong.

Naruto's last skill went off as he went down, and the ground around himself and Sasuke burst into mist. Sasuke readied himself for Shadow Clones, perhaps even explosive ones - but that wasn't what he got. As he stared, dumbfounded, a small part of his brain muttered 'some things never change'.

"Oh, Saaaasukeeee," one of the nearly-naked women sighed, draping herself over him. Sasuke turned and looked her in the eye.

"You know, sometimes it worries me how often you do this to me." Sasuke informed him, and then flicked the clone into smoke. He had a half-second to watch the chakra combust, during which the small muttering part of his mind screamed 'exploding harem!' in a tone that was actually a little excited.

When one went, so did they all, filling the valley with smoke and small craters. Sasuke got low and curled up for cover; when the explosions finally abated, he opened his eyes and found himself face-to-face with Sakura's head coming out of the ground. She smiled grimly at him and pulled him by the hair, head-first into the ground with her.

Sasuke freed himself quickly and found Naruto and Sakura locked in a strange staring match. Naruto was aware that Sakura was trying to out-think him; Sakura was aware that it would take a much more twisted mind than hers to out-think Naruto Uzumaki.

Sasuke growled and whipped a blunted kunai at each of them, knocking them out of their heads and back into the fight. He leapt forward, sweeping one foot at Sakura's legs and not waiting around in range to fight her. He dove straight for Naruto instead.

For three solid minutes there were no jutsu flying, no weapons in play. It was pure taijutsu, a beautiful dance that could have been choreographed for how smoothly it happened.

Naruto caught Sasuke's wrist and twisted with it; Sakura capitalized on their tangle and struck at Naruto's throat. He leaned out of the way, pulling Sasuke with him. Sasuke's weight went entirely on one foot and he used the freed one to kick at Sakura's stomach. She dropped backwards onto her hands to avoid it, and kicked out with both feet at each of her teammates' knees. The whole knot of them collapsed into a wrestling match which tore up the grass and rapidly got all three covered in slippery mud.

The match wound down when Sakura fell off to the side nursing a cut where she'd taken a knee to the eyebrow. Sasuke, on top of Naruto, found himself kicked off over the blond's head. He would have gone sailing were it not for the death-grip he had on a fistful of filthy blond hair. He laid where he landed, winded, with one hand still stretched above his head to hold on to Naruto.

"Ow, you bastard, I thought we said hair was off-limits." Naruto complained good-naturedly, swatting at Sasuke's hand.

Sasuke got his breathing under control enough to say, "Fuck you, Sakura did it first." He let go, but put his other hand up to stretch out.

"Sakura! I expected better from you."

Sakura laid down as well, creating a three-point star between them with their heads at the center. "Well, you should know better. I take what advantage I can."

Naruto sighed happily and then asked, "So... the new year."

That was what they were calling their return on January first: the new year. It was a new beginning in many ways. Kakashi had muttered about symbolism, and Sakura had nodded wisely. Naruto had decided that as long as Sakura knew, he didn't have to understand as well.

"Sensei has it handled. He wouldn't bring us back before everything was ready." Sakura stated firmly. Her voice softened. "I do wish I knew what he was going to do, though."

Sasuke snorted. "We know what he's going to do."

Naruto groaned and flailed his hand above his head until it slapped against Sasuke. "Not this again."

"Yes, this," Sasuke insisted, throwing a shower of sparks off his hands and into where he estimated Naruto's face was. "He won't tell us because he knows we won't like it, and that we will dislike it so much we try to stop it. The only thing that fits is that he's going to sacrifice himself."

Sakura murmured, "He's going to take the blame. He's going to try to make them think he tricked us."

"It won't work!" Naruto exclaimed. "First, they aren't that stupid - they won't believe him! And even if they do - I'll - I'll say he's lying!"

Both Sasuke and Sakura hit him at the same time. Sasuke growled, "You utter idiot, that just gets us all killed."

Naruto muttered sullenly, "Well, 'm not just gonna let him die alone."

They were silent for a little while, watching the last rays of the sun vanish from the sky. When the moon was bright and the stars just starting to show through the dark blue, Sakura spoke.

"If we take what we know is true, and add it up, we can find out the unknowns. That's what sensei says."

"Kakashi wants to go back to Konoha just as badly as we do." Naruto volunteered immediately.

"He wants us to live." Sasuke added.

"He doesn't want to die." Sakura sighed, "Pretty sure, anyway."

"Nah. Sensei's been clinging to life too long to think about letting go." Naruto assured, in a tone of experience. Neither of the other two asked him how he could know it.

"So, I think...." Sakura trailed off, thinking of the words. "No matter what his plan is, it's going to be the best thing for everyone. We just have to trust that, whatever it looks like, sensei will succeed. We've seen him go up against impossible odds before."

Naruto flashed back to when they'd been beset in the middle of their day-sleeping by twelve ninja from two different villages, and Kakashi had seemed to be everywhere at once keeping his genin safe. Sasuke remembered the mission Jiraiya had given them, to break into the house of a minor Fire Country noble and steal some documents. Kakashi had told them to make their way to the office, and not to worry about the twenty-man night guard. The three of them hadn't encountered a single guard, nor heard a sound from them.

But Sakura was looking at the two of them, lost in their memories, and she was thinking of how such a volatile team had come together perfectly.

"Probably has something to do with that cool coat he put at the bottom of my pack." Naruto commented. He dragged his hands through his hair, which was much longer than he preferred to keep it. "Don't know how, though. Just had a note telling me to wear it to the new year. Hey, maybe it's a special coat! Like armor!"

Sakura sighed, but it was Sasuke who replied, "That's not what it's for, dumbass." and proceeded to remind Naruto what they had decided the coat was for. Naruto still thought their idea was dumber, and much less awesome, than his own.

Chapter Text

1st of January, 66 f.K.

The day dawned peaceful and bright. The birds called as the sun rose and the shadows began to shrink, the cold night air dissipated into a comfortable heat in the light, though it was still chilled. Today, the new jounin-sensei would test their teams; the Academy teachers were introducing themselves to new classes; the new year had begun.

The side of the Hokage Tower exploded.

"Hold off the ANBU! I'll get his guards!" Naruto shouted. Sasuke went to work disabling any ANBU he could spot, with the help of thirty Naruto clones. Naruto himself was focused on what appeared to be Danzo's personal guards: a boy Naruto's own age, and a girl even younger.

He saw Danzo making a break for safety, wherever he thought that was. "Sakura!"

"On it!" she darted forward.

Naruto covered her, engaging both the guards. His first instinct was to talk to them, but the boy had cold, dead eyes, and the girl - where the hell were her pupils? Hyuuga?

The Hyuuga girl's brows were drawn together in confusion. She glanced at Naruto, then Sasuke, then Sakura's back. Naruto tensed, waiting for the attack.

The girl waved, "Go, get him! I'll handle Sai."

Naruto stopped dumb, narrowly dodging Sai's initiating strike. "What?" He asked as he parried another with his kunai.

"Hanabi, what are you doing?" Sai asked as well, voice without inflection.

"You're Team Seven, right? Trained by Kakashi Hatake?" Hanabi stepped between Naruto and Sai, blocking him off. Veins around her eyes bulge. "Danzo tried to make me his servant, but I know something about cursed seals. Now I know about them from both ends. Danzo Shimura will die for what he tried to do to me, even if I'm not the one who kills him. Now GO!"

Naruto hesitated, then nodded. He left the two of them and went after Sakura.

"I have always beaten you before, Hanabi. You are being foolish." Sai intoned when Naruto was gone. His weapons were down at his side, not raised and ready.

Hanabi showed him her teeth. "Stop talking to me, Sai. You've never had any words of your own to say."

Sakura had managed to get Danzo off course it seemed, but she was suffering for it. She had to dodge the ninja of the Leaf as well as keep track of her target, and it was getting worse as the seconds ticked by.

Naruto appeared beside her. "I've sent off clones Henge'd as jounin and chunin to misdirect the ninja, and complete the secondary objective. Danzo?"

Sakura pointed. "Headed north along this street last I saw."

Naruto frowned in concentration. He turned left. "Clone just saw him, this way!"

Sakura kept an eye on her teammate as they leapt from rooftop to rooftop. He must have close to a thousand clones in play at the moment, between the reinforcements for Sasuke, the distraction clones, and the spies to locate Danzo. He wasn't even beginning to look tired by it.

Then she looked up and realized that they had come full circle - they were at the foot of the Hokage monument, and Danzo was a silhouette on top of it. Naruto signed for Sakura to hang back, and then thirty of him popped into existence and started to climb.

Danzo picked them off in twos, throwing down kunai after kunai, but whenever one clone burst two more emerged from the smoke. Sakura thought she saw fear in the old man's eyes.

Naruto reached the top. Sakura turned and faced four Konoha ninja, who had made it to the monument and were staring up at their Hokages past and present.

Sakura drew two shortswords and settled her feet into a fighting stance. Twirling one blade, she invited them to try her.

The first, a chunin, leapt.

Sakura didn't kill any of them, but it was close. One blow would have been fatal but she healed it first, pinning the woman despite her vitriolic spitting.

"I'm helping you, idiot," Sakura snapped. The skirmish had taken precious minutes - she needed to check on Naruto - and who even knew how Sasuke was faring against the entirety of ANBU. But more reinforcements arrived at the mountain, and she couldn't let them get to Naruto.

But they weren't trying to. They stood there, weapons slack and heads tipped back to watch. Sakura looked up.

Naruto was surrounded by the miasma of the Nine-tails chakra, but he looked less a monster than Danzo. The old man's bandages were torn away, revealing a pale and deformed arm studded with red Sharingan eyes, each identical to the one in Danzo's right eye socket. Both combatants were held in an aerial battle by powerful wind currents - Naruto's or Danzo's, Sakura couldn't tell.

A scream of absolute, wordless rage pierced that surreal moment, and a dark blur shot off the edge of the Hokage Monument, resolving itself into Sasuke as he crashed into Danzo and dropped them both out of the air. Naruto began a semi-controlled descent not half a second later, proving that it had been Danzo's winds that kept them aloft.

Sakura's gaze dropped as her teammates disappeared into the maze of the village's streets. She looked again at the ninja gathered to help their Hokage.

"The Nine-tailed demon is attacking the Hokage." A chunin murmured faintly, as though he thought saying it would help him believe it.

Sakura bent her knees and adressed them. "You all know how Naruto came by the Nine-tail's power. Before you come to your Hokage's defense, why don't you take some time to consider where he got those eyes?"

She leapt, at the same time releasing chakra from the balls of her feet. It was the same technique Tsunade had taught her to use in her fists, but this sent Sakura rocketing up and forward in a massive jump. It was risky - trajectory was easy for any ninja to calculate and intercept - and she usually had Naruto around to redirect her in the air if she needed to dodge. But she needed to find her team, and find them fast.

And hopefully, she'd just delayed the Konoha ninja even more.

Sakura caught a Naruto clone dashing around, chased by three Leaf-nin. She stepped into hiding before she was spotted, and made a sign at the clone where he could see it. The Naruto nodded grimly and dispersed itself.

"Black god take this beast! Another clone!" One of the ninja chasing exclaimed. They moved on quickly, expanding their search again.

A sharp crow's call sounded, coming from the direction of the training grounds. Naruto had gotten the message, and was signaling his position.

Sakura formed the seals and sank into the ground, traveling slowly but unrestricted underground. She stopped when her vague earth sense told her there were three people above her, each moving very quickly around each other. She retreated off the main area of battle and poked her face out of the ground to look out.

Sasuke and Naruto were moving around Danzo in such a perfect synchronization that they could as well have been dancing, each moving off of the other. Still somehow Danzo was faster, moving away from every strike of Sasuke's blade, every grab by Naruto's hands.

Sakura's eyes narrowed. No, he wasn't moving that fast. But whenever Sasuke's blade was about to make contact, Danzo blinked out of existence and blinked back in half a second later, moved to the side or back a few steps.

And he wasn't being passive either. Each time he appeared far enough away, he threw off techniques: fire, water, earth, and wind; each as skilled as the last. Sasuke dodged, or in the case of one fireball, created his own fire to consume it. Naruto, when he couldn't dodge, chose to power through and trust the Nine-tails to heal him.

Thirty seconds into watching this dance, Sakura saw their chance: Danzo was slowing down. Each technique seemed to cost him more, he was moving slower. He still seemed to teleport effortlessly, but he no longer looked unaffected by it. Every time he was moved, it took him longer and longer to recover himself - by mere milliseconds, but that mattered in a ninja's battle.

Before, when Danzo had looked down at a numerous and unstoppable enemy crawling inhumanly up to him, his lizard-brain had begun to panic; but that was different from the entirely human fear of knowing that death is coming, and you can do nothing to stop it.

Sakura saw that in his eyes now.

"When the time comes that you are close to winning and Danzo knows it, he will try to run from you." Kakashi-sensei had explained, two months ago in Earth Country. "I don't know how he'll do it, but Konoha is his home; he will know it far better than you, and he will have preparations in place. There's only one way I know to stop him for sure."

Kakashi had reached into his kunai pouch and pulled out a strange knife none of his genin had ever seen before. It was three-pronged and the hilt was wrapped in seals.

"Naruto, I think it's long past time I told you something important."

Sasuke struck with the sword one more time, and Danzo vanished - but did not reappear.

"He's running!" Naruto growled, his wide grin bloody. He was finally beginning to tire, as Sasuke let his sword sink tip-first into the ground and leaned on the hilt while he gulped deep breaths of air.

"Is the net complete?" Sakura asked, rising from the ground. She had planned to compensate if one of them stepped wrong in their fight and left themselves exposed, but now they only needed to catch their quarry.

Naruto's eyes focused inward as he let the Nine-tail's chakra go. He was checking on his clones' secondary objective: not only to be distractions, but to scatter hundreds of Hiraishin kunai and seals around Konoha. Naruto formed the seal and summoned another fifty clones. All of them vanished immediately, and Naruto sat down heavily as he felt the drain. Moments later, he leapt back to his feet.

He held out his hands, one to each of his teammates. "We've found him!"

Sasuke and Sakura grabbed his hands, and found themselves in someplace else. It was another grassy training field, but this one was dominated by a shined black stone shaped like the blade of a kunai. It was the training ground where three much younger genin had become a team.

Danzo was retreating into the mouth of a tunnel underneath the Memorial Stone, his back to them. Sakura dove into the earth and moved faster than she ever had before, forcing herself up out of the ground inside the tunnel and in front of Danzo. She had barely enough time to register his honest, wide-eyed shock before her fist connected with his chest and blew him right back out.

The old man landed on his back and slid on the grass, still slick with morning dew, coming to a rest almost at the feet of Sasuke and Naruto. The last thing he ever saw was Sasuke's vicious snarl as the Uchiha leaned forward and drove his sword straight through the Hokage's heart and six inches into the soft earth below.

The training ground fell unnaturally silent. Sakura climbed out of the tunnel and came to stand with her teammates around the corpse. She knelt and dug her fingers into his right eye socket. When it popped free, she wordlessly handed the red eye to Sasuke. Sasuke crushed it without looking at it.

Naruto pointed at the man's pale left arm, which was beginning to writhe grotesquely. They all took a step back, tensed in case Danzo somehow came back from having no heart.

Instead, the arm pulsed and began to grow. The fingers of it speared the ground and bulged; at the shoulder it broke off from the rest of the body. By the time it began to reach upwards, all three of them had recognized that somehow, inexplicably, it was a tree.

Not a minute later, the training ground was flooded by ninjas with impeccable timing; the massive tree's growth was slowing down from its unnatural pace. Naruto looked across the Hokage's body at his teammates, and all the rest of the world seemed to fade away around him. It wasn't important. He was much too happy to care; Sakura was smiling widely, and even Sasuke was visibly elated.

Distantly he heard a voice commanding, "Surrender!" and so he sank to his knees in unison with his teammates and put his hands on his head.

Sakura broke first when she met Naruto's eye again: she let loose one wild giggle, and the dam broke. Naruto burst into relieved, uncontrollable laughter, prompting Sakura's own. Sasuke rolled his eyes and muttered, "You two are embarassing," but even he cracked half a smile.

They were still laughing when the sleeping poison on the senbon kicked in.

"Tenzo, what the fuck is happening to my village?" Shikaku demanded of the growth in his office wall.

Tenzo emerged fully from the wood and went over to the window. He looked out over Konoha from the third-story view. "The Hokage is going to die today." he stated simply, without turning around.

Outside the window, a flare of fire erupted over the Hokage Monument.

"You said not for months yet!" Shikaku exclaimed, reaching out to pull Tenzo around by the shoulder so the strange man would face him. "Just three days ago we talked about this."

Tenzo looked at him and shrugged, comepletely unapologetic. "I lied. Jiraiya and Kakashi told me that no one else could know, for security reasons. Danzo has more spies than even we could know."

"Sir!" there were three members of the MP gathered in Shikaku's doorway, all completely kitted up for battle. "What are our orders?"

Shikaku blew out a huge breath of air. "Activate C-shift, have B-shift remain on hand for reinforcements. I want all active squads in their assigned streets securing civilians. Get them to their bunkers."

"Team Seven will not cause casualties." Tenzo reminded Shikaku, blatantly ignoring the MPs in the room who could hear and later point to him as being in league with the assassins.

"Go now," Shikaku ordered, ignoring Tenzo's comment. Then he turned to the man, "Alright, since my timetable has apparently been moved way the hell up - what can I do?"

Tenzo gave him a vacant smile. "Take control, Captain. When this is over, there are going to be three young adults who have just committed treason. They're going to need to be taken into custody - your custody, preferably."

"I suppose I can make that happen, I can take some officers with me and take them in - if they will come peacefully. Wait.... Did you say three?"

Tenzo threw the window open and stepped up onto the sill. He flashed Shikaku a peace sign and dropped onto the street below. The police captain leaned out after him.

"Get back here, you bastard! Three?!" Shikaku groaned heavily and pulled back. He shut the window as he muttered, "Where the hell is Hatake, then?"

He put the thought out of his mind for the time being, and turned instead to gathering his most trusted lieutenants and officers to bring to the arrest. This included Inoichi, by now Shukaku's second in command, and none of Danzo's Root spies.

Shikaku arrived at Training Ground Three and the Memorial Stone in time to see his Hokage slide across the ground and stop at the feet of rogue-nin Sasuke Uchiha and Naruto Uzumaki. Perhaps, if he had moved fast enough, he could have stopped the blade from coming down; but he rather doubted it, and he hadn't come here expecting to be able to stop this execution anyway.

Tenzo had said that Team Seven would be Danzo's judge and jury: he had told Shikaku plainly that there would be no trial.

He held up the sign for 'hold' to his officers. It was testament to their trust in him that none went forward anyway; they would have been forgiven for it. Any ninja was allowed to act in the defense of their Hokage, no matter other orders.

Shikaku wanted to see what the three of them tried to do. He had the training ground surrounded with MPs, he was sure that they couldn't escape, but he wanted to see if they would try.

Then he could only watch in amazement as a tree bloomed out of the Hokage's body.

Okay, this just got way too fucking weird, Shikaku kept himself from saying. He gave the signal to move forward, and the Military Police Force converged on the Memorial Stone. "Surrender!" he barked out.

Team Seven fell to their knees willingly enough, but they seemed to have eyes only for each other. When two of them collapsed into helpless laughter, Shikaku decided that he didn't want to have to deal with them conscious for transportation. He signaled for three of the officers to put them to sleep.

After everything else, he half-expected them to just shrug off the sleeping poison; but by the grace of the dark god they fell silent and still.

Shikaku started barking orders, "Secure them, I want chakra suppression seals. Our best cell - thank the dark god Jiraiya is in Konoha right now, I need him to take a look at the Nine-tail's seal. I want to know that thing is secure as soon as possible. Move!"

The prisoners were picked up and carted back to Headquarters, where there were underground cells suited for ninja prisoners. Unfortunately, Shikaku was only confident in one cell's ability to hold Team Seven, so they would have to be roomed together as much as his gut screamed that that was a bad idea. But the cell was attached to an observation area, so he could have them under constant guard at least.

Shikaku might not have liked Danzo or agreed with his policies, and he might have risen to power under suspicious circumstances - but he had still been the Hokage. And the Captain of the Military Police Force was going to see that this investigation was done right.

Naruto came around first, as they were being transported somewhere. He was slung uncomfortably over some shinobi's shoulder, and the man was not being careful about the jostling. Naruto slit his eyes open just long enough to see blond hair, and then shut them again. Better to pretend to be asleep.

Still he memorized the scent of the man carrying him and listened hard enough to identify twelve different strides around himself, three heavier than the others. Naruto and his teammates were being carried.

He was listening so hard, he heard that longed-for voice breathe, "Naruto," even though Iruka himself must have been far from the ninjas. His heart ached and his chest hurt from having to restrain himself - no matter how badly he wanted to leap at his first and best teacher, Naruto knew he still had a mission to complete.

The lighting behind his eyelids changed from bright to darker, and the noises muted as new ones grew louder. They'd gone inside. The chatter in the room died immediately, silenced by their entrance. Naruto could feel the eyes on his vulnerable back; it made his skin crawl.

"The Hokage is dead," he heard someone whisper, "And they're the ones who did it."

"They're wearing Konoha headbands!" Someone snarled.

"Are they...?"

"Kakashi Hatake's brats, yeah. Still alive apparently - "

Naruto lost that thread of conversation as they descended a set of stairs, but another one followed them down. " - fucking crazy rogue-nin bastard probably got himself killed. Wouldn't be surprised to find out that the Nine-tails is in control of its container and leading those kids around by the nose, telling them lies...."

"That's enough of that." A calm voice cut that woman off. "Put them in the cell. Inoichi, you and Akane are on guard duty. Keep an open line to my office up top, if you would."

"You think they're still dangerous, boss? After the kind of chakra they were throwing around up there, anyone would be drained for half a day."

The owner of the commanding voice snorted. "Of course they're still dangerous. You might not have known Hatake, but some of us remember what a screwed-up crafty bastard he was. His team is bound to have picked some of that up."

After they were left in the cell, Naruto waited a few minutes to make sure that they were alone. He tuned his hearing up - which was what he called it when he hyper-focused on the soft frequency sounds that usually got filtered out - and listened for the pulsing thump-thump of a heartbeat. There were only three inside the cell, and the soft but indistinguishable murmur of living beings behind one of the walls of the cell.

He opened his eyes.

The walls were papered in chakra suppression seals. Reflexively Naruto reached for his chakra and found that he had to keep reaching. It was a disturbing sensation - the power that was usually barely contained beneath his skin now laid deep within his core, leaving him feeling drained. But it was still there, though muted, and he thought that if he drew on the Nine-tailed Fox's chakra the suppression would break under the pressure.

No reason to panic yet, then, he reasoned with himself, trying to bring his heartbeat back to equilibrium. Sasuke and Sakura, when he visually checked on them, appeared to be uninjured apart from what had already been sustained during the fight with Danzo.

He shifted Sakura's neck so that she wouldn't wake up sore from the angle, and then stood from his crouch and looked deliberately into the one-way mirror in the side of the cell. His expression cleared and his eyes narrowed.

Sasuke and Sakura agreed that Kakashi had set things up excellently for their return. Even before he'd told them who Naruto's father was, he'd ordered Naruto to stop trimming his hair short. Naruto didn't like the idea that he would be riding on his father's coattails, so he'd tried to find another reason for Kakashi giving him a long orange and black coat nearly identical to the Fourth Hokage's; but in his heart he'd always known.

Kakashi had wanted the sight of Naruto to evoke Konoha's memories of their greatest Hokage.

"Uh, normally I wouldn't ask but... he can't see in here somehow, can he?" Akane asked uncomfortable, face half-turned away from the man in the cell, who appeared to be staring right at her.

"No, he can't see in," Inoichi replied thoughtfully. He suppressed a flinch when Uzumaki's gaze switched precisely and settled on him. Inoichi added, "But he might be able to hear us. Can you?"

Uzumaki continued to stare with that half-narrowed gaze, and Inoichi flashed back to his earliest memory of Minato Namikaze - as Jiraiya and his apprentice returned to the village after a long training trip and the pair burst in the Third Hokage's office while Inoichi's team was debriefing.

Uzumaki's head tilted to the side slightly and he blinked, then finally looked away. If he could hear them, he had given no clear sign. Inoichi was willing to bet he couldn't - in testing, not even the Inuzuka's dogs could hear very much through the walls.

Apparently finished unnerving his jailers, Uzumaki turned his back on them and settled down cross-legged next to his teammates. The observation room and the cell were both silent for a few long minutes, until the rest of Team Seven began to wake up.

From behind the glass, Inoichi couldn't tell exactly when Uchiha woke up. He only figured it out when Naruto teached out and tapped the back of the boy's hand twice, and his eyes flicked open instantly alert.

A signal, Inoichi guessed. He was right; Naruto did the same to Haruno not half a minute later, and she reacted in the same way.

Both Uchiha and Haruno joined Uzumaki in sitting upright, all facing in towards each other. They didn't say a word to each other, and instead started using shinobi hand-signs.

Inoichi frowned. "Are you getting any of this, Akane?"

Akane shook her head. She had made a study of all of Konoha's hand-signs and those of other villages as well; if she didn't recognize it, there was nothing to recognize.

"Wait - there are a couple of signs I know. See, there's water-natured... but he followed it with neutral and another sign I don't understand."

Inoichi sighed. It had happened before that teams stationed remotely came back with strange ways of signing dangers to each other - sometimes these were absorbed into the collective, other times they remained an isolated event. He supposed Team Seven had had more than enough time to develop plenty of alien signs and syntax.

"Sir! Uzumaki just signed sensei."

Inoichi zeroed in on the flurry of hands moving in the cell, as if by watching hard enough he could glean meaning. His lips moved as he saw sensei, fire, higher, threat eliminated, target in sight, and, most worryingly, execution.

"Well, that's not promising." Inoichi muttered. But there had been a lot of signs that he didn't recognize - and he didn't want to believe that these kids could escape their strongest cell. Still....

He leaned over to the intercom in the wall, which was buzzing with an open line to Shikaku's office. "Hey, might wanna be on the lookout for Hatake. I think they're planning something."

Shikaku cleared his throat, a sound that injected adrenaline straight through Inoichi like a shot. He'd heard that tone only a few, dire times before. "Yeah, you're a little late on that one."

"See you soon, Inoichi," a voice from the past said smoothly. The intercom line cut out with a click.

If he survived this, Kakashi was going to have to have a talk with Konoha's security forces about letting rogue-nin walk into the village. True, he had used his best stealth to get past the wall, but after that he'd taken to strolling openly down the road on the way to the Military Police headquarters.

The air of nonchalance was affected, of course, but Kakashi felt he had an image to uphold. Hands in his pockets, mask up, jounin vest on, Konoha headband pulled down over Obito's eye for the first time in years - he was finally home, in the right skin again.

The first ninja to notice him stopped dead in their tracks and stared openly. One of them was Tenzo, who of course had been looking, but another was Iruka Umino, one of Jiraiya's agents in Konoha. Those two feigned the same surprise, but instead of accosting him simply fell into step several paces behind, as though they were an escort; and the other ninja began to follow their lead.

Kakashi took the most direct path to the headquarters, but it was still a long walk and by the end of it he had quite an entourage. He stepped up and pushed open the double doors of the station. As he stepped into the slightly darker indoors, he felt new eyes on him and a hush settled over the room in a wave. In a second, the whole room was utterly silent. Kakashi nodded respectfully but didn't break stride. Tenzo's intelligence had informed them that Shikaku's office was right across the main room.

There was a straight path through the desks and attached file cabinets; Kakashi didn't dare look around too much. He reached the office door - the overhead lights were off inside - and pulled it open. He stepped inside just in time to hear Inoichi Yamanaka begin to speak from the intercom unit on Shikaku's desk.

"Hey, might wanna be on the lookout for Hatake. I think they're planning something."

Shikaku had already looked up, and paled at the sight of Kakashi. Behind him, he could feel the others gathered at the doorway straining to see in. Shikaku cleared his throat and said distantly, "Yeah, you're a little late on that one."

Kakashi had crossed the small office in three paces. He leaned slightly over the desk, lit by a single dull lamp casting a pool of yellow light, and put his finger on the speaker's button. "See you soon, Inoichi," he remarked cheerfully, and cut the line. His eyes flicked back up to Shikaku, who was still sitting in his chair with a stony expression. "Captain, I've come to turn myself in. But first - " Every ninja in the room and outside of it fell into a battle stance when he reached into his vest, and Kakashi had to raise his voice slightly to overcome the whispering. " - you might want to read this."

Kakashi let the scroll roll out of his hand onto the desk. It came to a stop in the yellow light, displaying the bright red chakra-infused wax stamped with the Third Hokage's official seal.

Dead silence reigned for a few moments as Shikaku checked the scroll casing for an addressee, and broke the seal after finding none. He was in the middle of reading when the crowd at the door parted or was pushed out of the way by Inoichi Yamanaka.

Inoichi, who had practically thrown himself the last few steps into the office, stumbled to a halt when he saw there was no current danger. His eyes flicked between Shikaku, intensely focused on the scroll, and Kakashi, who watched the blond man dispassionately.

Shikaku raised his head from the scroll and looked at Inoichi. "Go to the Hokage Tower," he ordered, apparently not surprised in the least to notice his teammate was suddenly in the room. "And call for a general assembly."

"A general...?" Inoichi trailed off, surprised out of his words. Shikaku understood it anyway.

He nodded as he rolled up the scroll and put it back in its casing. He pressed the seal back and held it out to Kakashi, who touched the seal with the pad of his thumb coated in chakra. The wax reformed perfectly, affirming him as an acceptable bearer.

"A general assembly," Shikaku replied, "Every ninja eligible to vote on the Military Police Force and other in-village matters. I think this is something that's spent enough time hiding in tall towers and dark rooms."

What about the eyes, Sasuke? Naruto asked. What the hell was up with those?

Actually, their signs didn't have a phrase for 'hell'. But both Sakura and Sasuke were familiar enough with Naruto's speech patterns that the emphasis inserted itself whenever he gestured too wildly.

Probably my family's eyes, Sasuke replied, scowling. From just after the massacre. He fell into a brooding expression, thoughts turned inwards. He was happier that Danzo was dead than he thought he would be.

None of their intelligence had said anything about Danzo having a Sharingan arm.

He looked up when Sakura began to sign hesitantly, But does that mean that he had something to do with the massacre? I thought the village didn't find out until hours later, and the eyes wouldn't be viable for implant by then.

Sasuke froze staring at her. He was as still as a stone for so long that Naruto put a hand on his shoulder and made Sasuke's call-sign in front of his eyes.

He would never have thought of it on his own, Sasuke knew distantly. He was smart, but there were certain things he didn't think about, and the massacre's details were one of them. If Sakura hadn't said it, he would never have known.

Danzo had had something to do with the Uchiha Massacre.

I have something to ask my brother, when we find him. Sasuke replied finally. He banked the fire in his chest - Danzo was already dead, and his brother was out of reach for now.

Naruto suddenly perked up, looking at the cell's thick steel door. He motioned ready, and stood. Sasuke shot him a sideways glance, privately amused at Naruto's idea of 'best behavior'. Kakashi had warned the boy that people would be watching for any sign that he wasn't in complete control of the Nine-tailed Demon - and that he couldn't give them any of those signs.

So Naruto was in control, and quiet even though it was clear that the silence was killing him.

The door clanged open, revealing a tall man who looked a lot like Shikamaru; the famed Shikaku Nara, then. Behind him was Kakashi-sensei and Jiraiya.

Naruto couldn't help it; he broke into a wide grin upon seeing Kakashi. "What's up, sensei?"

"Oh, you know," Kakashi replied lazily.

Shikaku rolled his eyes and grunted, "You're all still prisoners, so shut up. The only reason you're not in chains is because I'm a hundred percent certain that you could break them."

Kakashi tilted his head, accepting this and agreeing with it.

The prisoners were escorted out of the cellblock and then the Police Headquarters by a full procession of ninja; they left an empty building behind. Outside, Naruto heard the boom of a massive gong being rung, in time with countless smaller ones in different places along Konoha's wall.

"That's the call for a general assembly," Kakashi told his genin, and then looked over at Shikaku who was watching them closely. "I haven't heard that for a very long time."

Shikaku shrugged. "I'm bringing it back in style. We've called it a few times before in order to vote on the Military Police roster, but those were scheduled ahead of time."

The assembly bells - very different from the alarm bells that would signal a call to arms, for obvious reasons - gathered the ninja of Konoha at training ground one. Ground one had originally been used for its nominal purpose, but as more grounds were added around Konoha it fell out of use; it was little more than a circular field with a natural decline towards the center point, creating a kind of stage. A person or group standing in the middle would be seen by everyone no matter how thick the crowd.

Of course that was where Shikaku took them. Team Seven shifted uneasily as they descended into the tiny valley, aware that they were quite literally giving up the higher ground amongst people who had not yet proved to be allies.

The ninja began to arrive.

Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura pressed their backs together so that they could watch every approach. Naruto left a small gap between himself and Sakura, and motioned at his sensei. Kakashi shook his head, and Naruto closed the gap.

While they were setting up their own defensive position, Shikaku's police force had formed a perimeter around them, leaving a healthy amount of space between Team Seven and the wall of officers. Konoha-nin toed this line, eying the team that had killed their Hokage only hours ago.

With one final, massive strike, the assembly call ended. Every muttering ninja fell silent.

Shikaku's voice rang out into the oppressive silence. "The rogue-nin Kakashi Hatake, Naruto Uzumaki, Sakura Haruno, and Sasuke Uchiha assassinated the Fifth Hokage Danzo Shimura two hours ago. The final strike was witnessed by myself and several others in front of the Memorial Stone. This is fact."

A susurrus broke out in the crowd, passing over the crowd in waves, circling the group in the center. Naruto reached for Sakura's hand; it was a comfort for the both of them, although he would never admit it.

"Kakashi Hatake arrived after the assassination to turn himself in and present me with this." Shikaku raised the scroll into the air, seal displayed prominently. He rotated so that every ninja could see. "The scroll is addressed to the Sage Jiraiya and claims to have been written by the Third Hokage himself."

The Head of the Military Police lowered his hand and flicked the seal open with his thumb, allowing it to unroll so that he could read it.

"Jounin Nara, don't you think this is a matter best left for the Council?" Hiashi Hyuuga snapped, pushing himself to the front of the crowd.

Shikaku's eyes flicked up from the scroll and locked dangerously onto Hiashi. "No," he stated plainly, "This is a matter for all of Konoha to know about. Not a secret, not a story, not something to be manipulated to someone else's end. I am a ninja, I know the value of a secret. The dark god might treasure my soul for the secrets I keep, but this will not be one of them."

Hiashi met Shikaku's eyes squarely, searching for some answer in them; he must have found it, because finally he nodded. "The blade is yours," he said, stepping away.

Shikaku turned his gaze back to the scroll and began to read.

"Jiraiya, I write this letter with the hope that it never has to reach you. I have given copies to Kakashi and to my son for safe-keeping; any other bearer may not be trustworthy. If you receive this message, then you know already that I am dead. You may not know that it was no accident or natural cause."

Shikaku had to raise his voice over the eruption of noise, nearly shouting the words as he read them. "Twice I have evaded an attempt on my life by agents of Danzo Shimura. I have disbanded his Root program, although I may have simply sent them deep underground. I will be dead when you read this, and it will be by Danzo's word if not his own hands. Upon receiving this message you are ordered to return to Konoha. Find Naruto and keep him safe. Danzo will try to seize power and he will likely succeed. In this missive I officially name you as my successor, or in the case of your refusal grant you the power to choose my successor. I order you to expose Danzo's treachery by any means necessary, and thereafter treat him as a traitor.

"Take Konoha from him, for he does not understand the Will of Fire and now I know he never has; he is not of the Leaf."

Utter silence reigned after Shikaku finished reading. Then the muttering started, quickly rising to a roar of noise from the crowd. Eventually one voice shouted over the rest: "Where's the other scroll? How do we know this is real?"

There was a general murmuring of agreement from the gathering as the ninja fell silent to hear the response. Kakashi sent a questioning look at Shikaku, who nodded shortly; he stepped forward a little, drawing everyone's attention.

"I received that letter the evening before the Third Hokage's death. He had another just like it in a drawer in his desk; I believe he did intend to give it to Asuma, but never got the chance."

In the quiet after Kakashi's words, there was a choked sound of surprise. The crowd shifted and drew back from a spot to Kakashi's right, revealing as if with a spotlight Asuma Sarutobi. The man was pale and staring into the distance ahead, mind lost to the past.

"Our mission had run late," he said softly, as though speaking only to himself. "We arrived at the gates late in the morning and... the gate ninja told me...." With one hand he took the cigarette from his mouth and crushed it, his mouth forming into a hard line. The ninja closed back around him.

The discussion among the crowd began again, and though it was much less hostile Kakashi still didn't hear the sense of approval that he knew they would need to get out of this alive. Yes, perhaps Danzo had killed the Third, but that was still mostly unproven. And they had also killed the Fifth; that was treason.

A shrill whistle pierced the wall of noise, silencing it once more. Jiraiya offered: "I think I can shed some light on all of this."

Kakashi looked, shading his eyes and squinting from the midday sun. Jiraiya stood at the top of the valley on the edge of the gathering, and he knew how to make an entrance. The sun shone from behind him, highlighting the horns on his forehead protector and the lines on his face. And his hand was on the shoulder of a young Hyuuga girl, who was in turn dragging around another boy by his hair.

A gasp went up from the mass of ninja, and Hinata Hyuuga shrieked "Hanabi!" and began shoving her way through the crowd to her sister, followed closely by the taller and less frantic figure of her father.

Hanabi fended them off with a single meaningful look - give me a second - and turned back to the gathered ninjas.

"My name is Hanabi Hyuuga. You may know that I was reported KIA on my first C-rank mission out of the village. In actuality, I was taken from my team in the middle of the battle by Root ninja under Danzo's orders. My sensei, I later found out, was also a Root agent; he swore to my family that he had burned my body so that no enemy could lay hands on my eyes.

"Danzo desperately wanted to lay hands on my eyes."

Hanabi re-positioned her feet for better balance, and raised the hand still dragging a pale boy around by the hair. "This is the Root ninja known only as Sai. Before he was assigned to watch me, he did not have a name at all. He doesn't feel much, if anything at all. He would follow Danzo's orders all the way to the dark god's kingdom, even if those orders were to kill the Hokage himself. Before the Fifth's death, Sai had a cursed seal on his tongue preventing him from talking about Root.

"Danzo wanted to make me like Sai. If I had not had my family's special training to resist advanced psychological techniques, he might even have succeeded. To be frank about it, I don't even care if he truly did order the Third's death; I would have killed him myself for what he wanted to do to me. But Sai, why don't you tell them what you told me just a little bit ago?"

Sai had dark hair, dark eyes, and skin so pale it was almost translucent. He was also bleeding from his nose and the corner of his mouth, kneeling in the grass and appeared to be held upright mostly by Hanabi's grip on him. "I said you were a nasty little brat," he droned, eyes rather unfocused.

Hanabi frowned and shook him. He seemed to come back to himself a little. "No, the only relevant thing you said."

"The day after the Third Hokage's death, three Root ninja vanished and never returned. That only happens when they were sent on a mission with details that can never be revealed."

Hanabi nodded and released him; Sai slumped over and appeared to fall unconscious.

The gathered ninja erupted again, so rapidly that Jiraiya knew it would be long minutes before anyone could be heard over them again. Instead he overheard the Hyuuga reunion:

"Sister!" Hinata exclaimed, hugging her little sister tightly. Hanabi didn't even try to put up a front; she squeezed back for all she was worth, but stepped away when it was over. She looked to her father and began to bow, but was stopped when, mother of all surprises, stuck-up Hiashi Hyuuga bent down to hug her as well.

"You two should go home." Hiashi ordered when he pulled away. "Hanabi has wounds to take care of and the clan needs to be informed that she is alive."

The sisters nodded in unison, and Hinata turned away from the gathering. She looked back, frowning, when Hanabi didn't immediately do the same.

Hanabi had gone back to Sai. She had a grip on the high collar of his half-jacket and was dragging him with her again. "He's coming with me," Hanabi explained to her father and sister, both of whom looked surprised. After a moment of consideration, Hiashi nodded his acceptance.

Jiraiya turned back to the gathering, making a mental note that Hanabi had taken Sai home; he would check up on that later. Things appeared to be calming down finally, so he whistled again to get the attention back on himself. Without obvious prompting, a path opened for him down to the middle of the crowd with the Military Police officers and Team Seven. Jiraiya started down it.

"You've heard a lot about this situation from everyone but the man himself. Let Kakashi Hatake speak for the charges brought against him." Jiraiya proclaimed as he walked. He reached the circle in the middle and gestured grandly at the ninja in question.

Let it be said that Jiraiya knows how to use dramatic moments to his advantage. He nodded slightly to Tenzo, who was standing at the edge of the path he'd just manipulated open for Jiraiya.

Kakashi nodded shortly and spoke as though he was debriefing after a mission. "I was informed of the Hokage's death early in the morning. Having already read the message the Third had given me, I knew that as the bearer of the message I was in danger. I also knew that Danzo was a danger to at least two of my students: Naruto and Sasuke, for obvious reasons.

"Tsume Inuzuka will recall that it was she who told me Danzo would be Interim Hokage; at this time I searched for the answer of how to protect my genin from Danzo, as well as evade him myself and get the message to Jiraiya. And though it was almost unthinkable I eventually knew that I would have to leave, and take them with me."

The gathered ninja were deadly silent; so quiet that when Iruka murmured softly, "They never did kill a Konoha shinobi," it was easily heard and passed around.

Kakashi nodded at this and continued in a more subdued tone, so that they had to truly listen in order to hear, "I did what I had to. Konoha has always been my home, has always owned my heart and loyalty. But Danzo did not stand for Konoha; he was a traitor in deed and a traitor at heart. To cleanse the Leaf of him, I would gladly give my life."

And that was a truth enough for the dark god, but Kakashi had found something in the three years he had spent away from Konoha: he would gladly give his own life for the village, but not the lives of his genin.

"I think we've heard enough," Jiraiya remarked. "Officers, if you would step away...."

The Military Police officers looked almost as one at Shikaku, who eyed Jiraiya and then nodded. They moved into the crowd.

"Thank you. Now, if there is any ninja here who doubts Kakashi Hatake's actions or believes in Danzo Shimura's innocence, let them cast the first kunai."

The air went absolutely still as intent dropped over the gathering like a heavy cloak, muting sounds and pressing in on all sides. The source was unclear, as was the feeling of it; it was not killing, not yet.

A single heartbeat stretched on into infinity.

Nobody moved. Many didn't even dare to breathe.

"So that's that then." Jiraiya concluded. His voice was soft but carried clearly in the unnatural silence.

That crush of intention lifted even as the man intoned, "Team Seven is declared justified in the assassination of the traitor Danzo Shimura."

Chapter Text

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!"