Note: In the manga (and especially the anime) the Byakugan has all sorts of wacky powers from different users including 'seeing the truth and lies in a soul'. Iruka's Byakugan is more mundane (think: Ultra HD/X-ray along with the normal chakra vision), though he still is powerful.


Kakashi had been back home from the hospital an hour before somebody knocked at the door.

That will be Naruto, he thought with an indulgent sigh. Obito and Rin were still out on a mission by the border of Earth Country and weren't due back for another full week. They wouldn't yet have had time to hear about Mizuki's betrayal — which meant Kakashi would have some grace time before his friends fussed over him.

Pulling up his mask, he gingerly walked to the door and opened it.

Byakugan Iruka stood on the other side.

Kakashi had just enough control not to completely leap back in surprise. But he couldn't stop a full-body twitch.

"Iruka-san," he said, reaching desperately for his characteristic lazy, unruffled drawl. It came out rather flat. "What do I owe this pleasure?"

Surely, the Jounin wasn't still pissed about the mission room incident a few months ago?

Iruka's single visible eye swept Kakashi and down. No doubt the one hidden behind the man's eye-patch was doing the same — the power of the Byakugan was not stopped by mere cloth.

"Kakashi-sensei." Iruka inclined his head slightly, all politeness and not an iota of killing intent. "I was hoping to talk to you about some of your students."

Kakashi's heart fell into his sandals. What did the ANBU bogeyman want with his kids? "Yes," he forced himself to say through a dry mouth. "Of course."

He stepped aside, and Iruka politely towed off his sandals and followed him down the hall through his small house.

Kakashi knew he should offer tea, but his back was sore, and he still felt emotionally raw from his father's bedside visit. Besides, Kakashi had been called many things in his life — not one of them had ever been 'polite'. With that in mind, he asked, "What is this is about?"

"The Sandaime wishes me to take on a genin team," Iruka replied.

Kakashi's surprised stumble was small, but it pulled on his stitches. Fire raced up his spine, making him gasp in reflex.

In a blur of motion, Iruka was beside him, steadying his elbow.

Kakashi had been an Academy sensei for years-dealing with children who threw sharp objects kept his battle reflexes honed. Pain or no, he would have brought his elbow up to smash in Iruka's face if the man hadn't gripped his arm hard, stopping the move before Kakashi could start it.

Kakashi stared at Iruka for a dazed second, and realized the other man was slightly shorter than him. Broader in the shoulders and heavier with hard muscle, yes, but Kakashi actually had to look down to meet his gaze. Funny. Iruka's presence always made him feel larger.

"Kakashi-sensei," Iruka said politely, even though Kakashi had almost struck him. "You are still healing. Sit. I will make tea."

He raised his eyebrows and drawled, "You want to make me tea… in my own house?"

"I do know my way around a kitchen," Iruka said primly.

Kakashi smirked under his mask and glanced meaningfully to where Iruka's tanned fingers still gripped his arm. "Maa, Iruka-san, as you can see, I am in no shape to stop you, whatever you want to do."

To Kakashi's surprise, the Jounin actually rolled his eye at the tasteless innuendo. It was a... more human reaction than Kakashi expected. "Humor me," Iruka said as he expertly guided Kakashi to his low couch, then padded across the room to Kakashi's modest kitchen.

Once Iruka was out of sight, Kakashi closed his eyes and tipped his head back, listening to the man work. The quiet clink of glassware and opening and closing of cabinets. No doubt using that eye of his to see Kakashi kept his things.

The wound from Mizuki's Grand Shuriken was a blaze of white agony. Getting up to answer the door had been a terrible idea But Kakashi had refused painkillers on leaving the hospital, not liking how they'd left him fuzzy. So, concentrating, he dampened his screaming nerves using chakra.

He knew a man like Iruka would be able to tell what he was doing—some of the more twitchy, battle-hardened Shinobi might actually view the gathering of chakra as an overt threat—but there was no comment from the Jounin.

Idly, Kakashi wondered what Iruka's reaction would be if he asked him to seal the spot using his famous gentle fist technique. Numbness would be a blessing.

Embarrassingly, he lost track of time (the lingering painkillers from the hospital, no doubt) and was taken by surprise when Iruka pushed a warm cup of tea into his hands.

Kakashi didn't sip — he only lowered his mask in front of friends — but the warm beverage was soothing between his palms. The scent that rose from the cup told him Iruka knew how to brew a good cup of tea, too.

"I'm working on the official list of the new genin teams tonight," Kakashi said, forcefully bullying his mind to the present. Another reason he didn't want painkillers fogging his mind. The work of a sensei was never done. "I'll present it to the Hokage tomorrow. If you have any suggestions…?"

"Sandaime has already made his decision regarding my team," Iruka said, then added rather tartly, "I doubt I'll be allowed to fail them, as well."

It was one of those situations, then. It was a perspective jounin-sensei's right to pass or fail their own team—until it wasn't. Usually that meant the Hokage was obliquely forcing a Jounin to take a rest from regular missions. Or force him or her to create new bonds within the village—something to anchor them to this life. Give them a reason to come back for.

Kakashi had been considered a child genius. He knew better than to say any of that aloud. Instead, he settled with a nondescript, "You've never taken on a genin team before?"

"No," Iruka said plainly. "But Hyuuga Hinata is graduating."

"Ah. Of course." It made sense that the Hokage would want one Byakugan user to teach another. Especially, the last Hyuuga. Kakashi glanced over to see Iruka watching him. The light from the half-closed blinds cast a bar of sunshine over his high ponytail. Kakashi saw the strands in many shades of deep umber and rich brown...

Concentrate, he told himself sternly, fingers tightening on the tea-cup.

"I had planned on recommending Hinata-chan to one of the Uchiha Jounin." Kakashi tilted his head and offered the best loophole he could. A Jounin who wasn't enthusiastic about their genin team usually meant avoidable deaths on the field. "You don't have to take on an entire genin team just to instruct her, Iruka-san. Many Jounin-sensei farm out their students to special instructors. An Uchiha could give her the basics of her bloodline, and you could fill in the gaps."

"Tempting as is that is, the Sandaime was insistent." Iruka's voice turned sharp with impatience. No doubt he'd proposed the same thing, and had the idea rejected. "I will be taking on a three-man team. Tell me about the Hyuuga."

She brings me sweet apples every Friday, has fainted at the sight of her classmate's blood though she is unfazed by her own. She leaves fresh flowers at her parents and little sister's graves, and I'm afraid if she's forced to endure another tragedy she might just break. But what Kakashi said aloud was, "She is second from the top of her class, behind Uchiha Sasuke. She seems to have considerable use of her Byakugan, and can throw kunai at ninety-eight percent accuracy up to ten meters. Her taijutsu is average, however. She lacks… aggression."

Iruka nodded and looked vaguely pleased Kakashi knew her exact classroom statics without having to look it up. "Have you seen her use the gentle fist technique?"

For a moment, Kakashi considered playing dumb. Not many would know that style until they were quite literally hit with it. But he had worked with several Hyuuga clan members on missions before they were all killed. Iruka must have known that, too. Perhaps he had even looked in Kakashi's file.

"She has not displayed that technique in class, no," he said carefully.

"Not while sparring? Not even when pushed?"

Kakashi almost laughed. "Iruka-san, Hinata-chan would never want to hurt her own classmates."

A brief look of surprise darkened Iruka's face, and highlighted the horizontal scar across his nose and cheeks. Then he nodded, seeing underneath what Kakashi was telling him. He took a sip of his tea and said, "Nara Shikamaru?"

Kakashi felt his eyebrows rise. "He is to be assigned as this generation of Ino-Shika-Cho triad, of course."

"Not anymore." There was a definite glint of mischief in Iruka's visible eye. Kakashi wasn't sure if he should be alarmed or not. This assignment would break generations of tradition.

He let out a breath. Shikaku won't be happy about this, he thought. But that wasn't his problem. Not if Sandaime was stepping in to personally build this team.

"Shikamaru's test scores are average. Exactly average on every level," he said with slight emphasis.

Iruka understood right away. "Is he holding himself back out of fear?"

"He is to be head of his clan, and has been primed to be one third of the legendary trio ever since birth. Just like his father. He has been trained in the Nara shadow hold technique since he could first mold chakra. To keep an enemy still so a Yamanaka can get into their mind or a Akimichi could pummel them flat. Just like his father." Yes, Kakashi had much in common with the boy, though they had developed very different outlets for the type of pressure family and being born a genius could pile on one's head.

"Then, being average is about rebellion for him," Iruka said. "If he doesn't excel, no one will expect too much. If he doesn't fail, he will not get into trouble."

"I doubt Shikamaru would see it that way." Though Kakashi wasn't disagreeing. He tapped his fingers against the thin china cup. His real strength is in tactics."

"How so?"

Kakashi's eyes curved into a smile at the memory. "Every year, I offer the class top grade to whichever student can reveal my bare face."

The Jounin looked briefly surprised. "But you just said Shikamaru's grades are average."

"Maa, they are." Kakashi waved a hand. "Shikamaru devised a chakra-wire trap-a brilliant one-and sold the plans to the highest bidder. Sasuke-kun bought them, followed through, and came very close." He pinched his forefingers together. And it was true. Had Kakashi not been, well, Kakashi the ploy may have worked. As it was, a quick substitution jutsu had saved his dignity. In nearly ten years working for the Academy, not one student had ever come that near to unmasking him.

He could swear Iruka was almost smiling. It felt like a small victory. "And what exactly are you hiding under that mask, Kakashi-sensei?"

"Another mask, naturally."

"I see," Iruka said. "Tell me about Naruto."

All warm amusement in the room drained away, as if Iruka had pulled out a plug. Kakashi set his teacup on the table with a sharp snap. "No."

That glint was back in your Iruka's eye, but it looked a lot less mischievous and much more dangerous. "He is your former Jounin-sensei's son."

"Congratulations. You've read my file." Kakashi knew he was being unspeakably rude to a man who could probably seal his all chakra points in one strike. But he didn't care. "Naruto will not thrive in a team with Shikamaru and Hinata. He will do best in a situation where he has somebody he can compete directly against." He directed his most bland gaze at Iruka. "He should be placed with Uchiha Sasuke. The rivalry between them will strengthen them both."

"No, Kakashi-sensei. An exuberant boy like Naruto will be forced to temper himself with a lazy genius who can run tactical circles around him, and a girl too afraid to kill," Iruka replied, steel in his voice. "He will either learn teamwork, or he will get himself and his comrades killed. This is how the weak in Konoha are weeded out."

His words sent a chill through Kakashi's veins. "You're wrong, Umino-san." Kakashi recognized that his legendary bored distance was failing him, but this was Naruto. He couldn't keep the heat out of his voice. "Assigning you a team is a mistake. A man with your experiences cannot hope to teach children. You'll ruin them."

Depressingly, Iruka did not contradict his words. Instead, he switched topics all together. "Why do you have a second room in your home with a bed for the jinchuuriki, and all of his things?" Iruka hooked a thumb directly over his shoulder to the second guest bedroom. The door was firmly closed, but of course Iruka could see into it. "Naruto's file indicates he has village subsidized apartment in the fifth district."

Kakashi made himself sit straight, even though it was agony along his spine. He had nothing to hide. "I could never abandon my sensei's son to live in squalor."

"And yet he is at the bottom of his class. The Fourth's own son, container of the demon fox, barely graduated," Iruka all but sneered.

Instinctively, Kakashi looked around to make sure they were alone. Such words were not spoken in his home — not with Naruto's sharp ears.

"He is half a kilometer away, at the hospital, Kakashi-sensei, no doubt looking for you," Iruka said with a curt gesture. The vain near his left temple bulged ever so slightly, and Kakashi knew he was under examination for the type of blood pressure and heart-rate changes the body made when lying.

Damn, he thought. This conversation had been a trap all along. He could swear the new healed skin over the wound in his spine itched.

"Did you alter Naruto's test scores to put him on the bottom in a bid to keep him safe?" Iruka asked, voice velvet over steel.

"No," Kakashi said flatly. And truthfully.

"Did you hold him back in any way?"

"Of course not."

"Not even to keep him out of the field?" Iruka pressed, like a man plunging a sword in. "To keep him safe?"

Kakashi grit his teeth. "There is no safe for a shinobi."

"Answer the question," Iruka snapped.

"I never held him back," Kakashi said. "The only way Naruto will ever reach his potential is out in the field. In combat."

Iruka regarded him for a moment. It felt like Kakashi were being examined down to his soul. He hated it. He may as well not be wearing a mask at all.

Whatever Iruka saw must have satisfied him. He visibly relaxed, and the tension in the air thinned. "Naruto's chakra stores are incredible for someone his age. His stamina alone equals a fully trained shinobi."

Is there anything that blasted eye doesn't see? Kakashi thought, half in exasperation and half in grudging amazement. But if this man was to be Naruto's Jounin-sensei… He did need to know the full truth. "He lacks any chakra control. He failed the most basic Henge." Though he used the Shadow Clone technique with ease. That had been a surprise, and Kakashi wasn't often surprised. "His chakra-" Kakashi closed his eyes and shook his head. "He has so much, it leaks out as uncontrollable bodily energy. Naruto cannot sit still. He incapable of paying attention to a lengthy lecture. Classroom learning is a torture to him. He needs to be out in the field."

"Did you at least try to work with him on his self-control?"

Kakashi leveled the Jounin a flat look.

This seemed to amuse Iruka slightly. He didn't smile, but his face softened a touch. It was a shame, Kakashi thought — he was a complete bastard, but also very handsome.

"It must be the seal, then," Iruka said, after a moment of thought. "I understand Minato-sama was... rushed for time. Any improperly placed sigil would tamper with Naruto's ability to throttle back the Kyuubi's chakra."

Minato's death was an old grief, too well trod over to get a reaction out of Kakashi. Well, much of a reaction.

"Perhaps," Kakashi said, then added, just to needle the other man, "Did Orochimaru teach you the secrets of his seal techniques, as well?"

"Yes," Iruka said. "He did."

Kakashi did not gape. He had a mask to hide such things.

"I know the rumors," Iruka said after a moment. Again, his direct gaze focused on Kakashi's face, making him feel naked and exposed. "Trust me: Whatever you've heard of Orochimaru-sensei, it pales to what actually happened. The truth is far worse." He drained the last of his tea and set the cup down, folding his hands politely in his lap. "I tell you this only because you're the closest thing Naruto has to a parent: What happened to my genin team will not happen to Naruto's." Something fierce flickered across Iruka's face. "You have my oath on it."

Kakashi found himself at a loss for words. He did not want to thank the man for a promise of safety that should be standard for any Jounin-sensei. Nor did Kakashi want to offer pat sympathy for the pain he heard in Iruka's voice. Worst of all, he did not want to give voice to the fear that was trying to crawl up his own throat.

The Snake Sannin had abused his students in every way-twisted and experimented on them, if the rumors were even halfway true. How could Iruka, said to once be Orochimaru's favorite until he'd turned on his teacher, not pass that same darkness onto his own subordinates?

Iruka could promise all he could, but... but...

Naruto, as usual, had the worst timing ever by leaping in through the half-open kitchen window. "There you are, Kakashi-sensei!" he yelled, pointing an accusing finger at him. "I looked for you at the hospital, but Baa-Chan already said you were gone. I would have walked you home-"

Kakashi couldn't help the surge of protective chakra-fed by the need to protect the boy that was half little brother, half son. He glanced to Iruka, an apology on his lips, but there was no need.

The jounin was already gone.


OoOoO


From four blocks away, Iruka watched the jinchurikki fuss over his chuunin-sensei.

He could not hear what was being said (though if he concentrated he probably could read Kakashi's lips through movements of the skintight mask), but body language spoke volumes.

The boy all but made his sensei lay down properly on the couch, continued to berate (loudly) until the man lazily waved him off, assuring him he was fine. Then the boy hurried off to the closest ramen stand to get dinner for two.

There were fine lines of stress and pain on the visible portion of Kakashi's face. Iruka felt a pang of regret for pushing him for answers so soon after being released from the hospital.

The Third had been right, after all. Kakashi was not a traitor along with Mizuki. It had been plain as day in the rhythm of his pulse, the unwavering chakra through his system, the slight expansion of his irises. He hadn't lied to Iruka-and the affection and protectiveness he felt for Naruto was real.

Real, and so… oddly touching that Iruka had found himself giving an oath to the man that he'd keep the genin team safe.

It was ridiculous, and it left Iruka feeling unbalanced and annoyed with himself. What was wrong with him?

Kakashi had said it himself. There was no safe for a shinobi. Iruka was not a 'safe' man. How could he hope to pass that on to children?

Iruka's vision was nearly 360 degrees, but the shinobi who approached him came at him from his only blind spot, right above his spine.

Iruka flared his chakra in a brief pulse to show he knew he was there, but did not turn to acknowledge the other man as he usually did. It was the steps of an opening dance between them. Iruka would return the sneak attack with intent to kill, and the spar would be on.

Today, he had no taste for it. He resolutely ignored the other man and continued staring in the direction of Kakashi-sensei's small home. It looked as if the chuunin had fallen asleep. He looked... peaceful. And wrung-out. Why had Iruka pushed?

Iruka sighed. Now, he had an idea of the personalities and some of the strengths and weaknesses of his genin, he'd spend sketching out rudimentary training plans. He had three days to prepare. It would have to be enough.

Presently, he felt the change in the air as his would-be attacker gave up waiting and leaped to join Iruka on the branch.

"Trouble?" Itachi asked.

Iruka shrugged and tore his gaze from the sleeping sensei. "I spoke when I should have remained silent."

"You, Iruka-taichou?"

Iruka shot Itachi an amused glance at the sarcasm.

"I heard you were to teach genins." Presently, Itachi knelt down on the branch. "Sasuke has graduated."

"I heard," he said. "Congratulations. And no, he's not on my team."

Itachi shrugged. "You didn't do so badly with me, Captain."

"You were already ANBU. Well broken in with only a few bad habits to train you out of," he teased. They both knew Itachi had been impeccable from the start.

Itachi tilted his head in thought. "Ah, but fresh genin... they will have no solidified habits yet. Imagine what you could remake them as."

Iruka could. And that's what scared him. After all, Orochimaru-sensei probably had thought the same thing. Iruka's memories, pre-genin were vague since he had been so very young. How would he be able to relate to children at all? "Why don't you take your own team?"

"Not in my brother's year, I think," Itachi said. "But soon. Something to rival your own team." He reached out as if to playfully poke Iruka's shoulder. Iruka twisted out of the way, without thinking. Itachi activated his Sharingan-Iruka's Byakugan was always 'on', so he only focused it.

The spar was on.


OoOoO


"Iruka-san," Asuma said warmly as Iruka met him, three days later. Asuma was gathered with a knot of other jounin not far from the academy building. Soon, they'd go in one by one to meet and test their new teams. But first, they were exchanging names and gossip.

"Hello, Asuma-sensi," he greeted, and nodded to the others.

"Iruka?" Kurenai looked pleased. "The Third finally talked you into a team?"

"It would appear so," he said only because he was too polite to say, 'I didn't have much choice'.

"Who'd you get?" Asuma asked. "Don't tell me you're the one who broke up my rookie dream team."

He knew where this was going. "They put Nara with me."

"And gave me a civilian kunoichi as recompense," Asuma griped.

Kurenai whapped him on the shoulder. "Be polite, Asuma. Iruka-sensei had as much say in the assignments as you did. None."

Iruka-sensei. He tried not to wince at the new honorific. "Who did you get, Kurenai-san?"

"Kiba, Shino and Uchiha Sasuke." She was quietly smug, as she should be. Those were three powerful bloodlines.

"They gave you the Hyuuga girl?" Asuma guessed.

Iruka nodded. "Do you know anything about her?"

He didn't need the byakugan to catch the slight grimace they both shared. "Only that she may benefit from... positive reinforcement," Kurenai said tactfully.

Iruka rarely smiled. He did now. So what if he had a legendary set of lungs? "I'll keep that in mind."

"Who else?"

"Naruto."

Asuma clapped him on the shoulder in sympathy. "Trade him for my civilian."

"Temping, but no. Even if we could-" His mind flashed to, of all things, Kakashi and the promise Iruka made. The slight shock on Kakashi's face and the way his lips had parted, visible through his mask. "He's the one I'd most want to keep."


OoOoO


Iruka waited for Asuma, Kurenai, and several other jounin to retrieve their three man cells before he went in to collect his own. He wasn't the last, but three quarters of the class was gone and the tension was thick in the air.

He strode to the front and looked at the little card he'd been given, as if he didn't know the names already, and hadn't spent the last two days looking over their official files and sketching out preliminary lesson plans.

He did not expect to enjoy this, but let it not be said that he didn't take every mission seriously.

"Nara, Hyuuga, and Uzumaki," he intoned. "Come with me."

"Yeah!" crowed a loud blond in the back. He vaulted down, fist pumping and beamed up at Iruka with a smile that stretched the whisker-like markings on his face. "Hey! I'm Naruto Uzumaki and I'm going to be the strongest ninja in the world. Believe it!"

Iruka felt his eye twitch. Instead of replying, he glanced at the girl, who had just joined them. She was looking down at the floor and visibly trembling.

"Hinata-chan, we're going to be on a team together! Isn't that amazing?" the blond practically bellowed.

She stared at her feet and mumbled something.

Iruka's internal sigh was reflected by a very real, external sigh as the third member of their group joined them. Shikamaru's eyes were half hooded, and he honestly looked like he were about to fall asleep. He slouched in a way that was shockingly reminiscent of his Chuunin-sensei, and Iruka realized the boy must have picked up some of Kakashi's mannerisms. That was disquieting.

"Hello," Shikamaru said, tone polite, though he rolled his head towards the window as if he'd rather be doing something, anything else. Like cloud watching.

"Hey! Hey!" Naruto said, practically bouncing. "We're going on a mission now, right? And I'm going to show you how well I can fight!"

Did he have to yell everything?

"No," Iruka said simply. Then he grabbed Naruto by the scruff of the collar. The other hand snatched Hinata and Shikamaru's wrists, and activated the teleportation jutsu he had waiting in reserve.

In a swirl of leaves, he and the three genin were up to their ankles in mud at the bottom of a twenty feet deep pit.

Iruka ignored Naruto's bellow of surprise, Hinata's gasp, and Shikamaru's slow blink. He let them go with a shove that sent all three staggering to the other side of the pit.

"My name is Iruka, your new Jounin-sensei," he said. "And this is your first test."

"T-test?" Hinata stammered, her eyes wide.

Iruka nodded. "I only have time to train two of you, so here is your task: The first two to make it out of this pit alive will receive training. The third, I will consider too weak to bother with. He or she will be banned from being a shinobi. Forever."

"What! What? That's not fair! Hey, I already graduated!" Naruto yelled. "Kakashi-sensei gave me his hitai-ate-"

"Kakashi-sensei doesn't have the final say," Iruka made his voice steel hard. "I do." But he was watching Hinata's reaction closely. From the way the girl was still trembling, he half expected her to collapse in despair.

She was still looking down, but she saw her chin harden, her lips press together. She nodded once, and said nothing.

Naruto started bellowing, but then switched immediately to claiming he was going to be the first out of this pit. Shikamaru, however, cocked his head.

"But genin teams are usually comprised of three students and one sensei," he said.

So, the boy knew an obvious misdirection. Smart. Usually, the fear of failure was enough to make someone gloss over that. Iruka only stared at him, hard, and was surprised when the boy visibly paled and looked down.

He was intelligent, but only twelve and had none of Naruto's bravado.

"If you get thirsty, I do not suggest you drink this water," Iruka advised.

"But what if it takes us a long time?" Naruto demanded. "What do we eat?"

He pretended a look of surprise. "You mean, you're shinobi and you didn't even bring your own ration packs?"

That set Naruto off again. Loudly.

"What do we do after we escape the pit?" Hinata asked very quietly. Iruka had to strain to her soft voice over Naruto's bellowing.

"You'll meet me back at the academy. If you can. Good luck."

With that, Iruka gathered chakra in his legs and leaped out of the deep pit onto the leaf littered ground above.

Of course, he didn't abandon them. He walked just out of sight and knelt, uncovering his Byakugan, and prepared to watch the show.


OoOoO


Immediately, Naruto began jumping for the top of the pit. He had some very rudimentary chakra skills and managed a good nine-feet before slipping down. He kept this up for much longer than Iruka would have guessed.

Shikamaru simply knelt down, his fingers in a meditative pose. At first, Iruka thought he was gathering his shadows, but no. The boy was deep in thought. Almost asleep.

Hinata simply stood and watched Naruto, tapping two fingers together.

Iruka privately thought if he were allowed to fail one of them it would have been Nara. At least the other two seemed to care if they were shinobi or not.

A cool rasp of scales slithered over his toes where they peeked out of his sandals. Iruka glanced down to see a small black snake where one had not been a moment before.

He pinched it behind the head and brought it to eye level where it opened its mouth to display dripping fangs.

"Seriously?" Iruka asked.

The snake summon seemed to smile at him, then poofed away. A moment later its master dropped down from the canopy of leaves by Iruka's side.

"What?" Anko said with false innocence. " It's not every day I find you in the Forest of Death, Iruka-kun. What are you up to?"

"Training my genin team."

Her laughter was cut short when he didn't join in. "Wait, you're serious?"

He gestured to the pit. Anko didn't have the byakugan, but Naruto's chakra output could be felt kilometers off by anyone paying attention.

Anko rested one hand on a cocked hip. "Tell me you're not pulling the 'fight to the death to earn my respect' trick, are you?"

It had been almost two decades, but Iruka remembered the sound beating he'd taken at Anko's hand. She'd been the strongest of their team, though in the long run Iruka had gone the furthest to achieve recognition by their sensei. She and Ko had teamed up against him. They'd won their sensei's favor for their ruthlessness, and Iruka had, too, for not giving up, even half-dead. Of course, all three had passed. These genin tests were little more than mind games for a sensei to establish how their new team would work.

"Why do you think I'm here, watching?" Spotting was more like it. He was determined he wouldn't be like Orochimaru. He'd step in if things got ugly.

Anko cocked an eyebrow. "You think Hyuuga and Nara would turn on the fox-brat?"

"No, I think think it will be Naruto and Hinata against Nara, and he'll allow it to happen. I think he sees through the ploy."

Down in the pit, Naruto had finally exhausted himself and lay slumped in the mud. Then, with a burst of sudden energy he picked himself up and started yelling that Shikamaru didn't care, and why wasn't he helping? His voice was loud enough to drive the birds from the trees.

It wouldn't be long now. Tempers were flaring.

Shikamaru continued to meditate, not taking the bait.

Anko winced as Naruto's voice rose to new heights. "Wow, I think that kid can even out-yell you. Good luck, Iruka-kun." With that she escaped to the safety of the trees.

"Thanks," he muttered to the empty air, not adding, I'll need it.


OoOoO


Hinata gasped as Naruto leaped again for the edge of the pit, fell short, and hit hard. Hinata was trying not to cry. She knew she couldn't jump nearly as high as Naruto, and even he was falling desperately short of the top of the pit.

If she didn't make her way out, she'd never make it a shinobi. Everything she remembered of her family's jutsu wouldn't help here. And if she didn't get out she would never be a ninja. Her clan bloodline, generations of history, would be extinct from this world. Her mother and father and sister would have died for nothing, and... and...

Naruto leaped once again, not even coming close to halfway up the pit. He was covered from head to toe in mud, looking more mud-pie than boy. It was easier to look at him like this, though she couldn't quite meet his eye.

"You're wasting your time," Shikamaru drawled. "Troublesome."

"Yeah? Well, I don't see you doing anything!"

"Because this isn't really a test."

Naruto scrunched his face up. "What? What do you mean, this isn't the test?"

"We... we have to get out." And what chance did Hinata have against Naruto and Shikamaru? She looked down at her fingers, so small and delicate compared to the boys. None whatsoever.

"My family have been part of the Shika-Ino-Cho team for fifteen generations. I was to be the sixteenth," Shikamaru said, though he didn't seem annoyed at the break in tradition. "And in all that time, it's always been a three man team."

"Hey..." Naruto said. "Hey, so you're saying that one-eyed sensei is lying?"

"He doesn't have one eye," Hinata said quietly. Then blushed as she found herself the object of attention from the two boys.

"What do you mean, Hinata-chan?" Naruto asked.

"I..." She looked down, her face flaming in embarrassment. "He has an eye underneath his patch. I looked..." Iruka-sensei's covered eye looked like a Byakugan, but he wasn't a Hyuuga. And why would he have only one? Not two? She had to be mistaken.

Shikamaru saved her from stammering an answer. He stood to his feet and craned his head up, as if he were cloud watching. But Hinata could track where his pupils were focused. They were on the edge of the pit. "The only way we get out of here is by working together. All three of us."

"But he only has time to train two of us!" Naruto complained.

"That's troublesome," Shikamaru agreed. "So we don't give him the choice. We all three go up together."

"At... at the same time?" Hinata looked to the top of the pit, nearly twenty feet straight up. Then she turned and indicated the muddy wall. "There's... there's a rope hidden in the mud, six inches deep."

"What? There is?!" Naruto swung to her. "How do you know?"

Hinata felt another blush rising. "I can see it."

"She has the Byakugan," Shikamaru said. "The rope's infused with with chakra, right?" He waited for Hinata's small nod. "Which means that jounin wants us to find it."

"But... it's not long. Just enough for two people." Which was why Hinata didn't mention it. She wasn't sure how a rope could help anyone escape the pit, but she didn't want the boys fighting over it.

Naruto curled his hands into fists in frustration. "I really don't like that Iruka-bastard. We should all be ninjas. Believe it!"

Shikamaru slanted a gaze at him. "How's your henge? I remember you failed when Kakashi-sensei tested us in class."

Embarrassed, Naruto scratched the back of his head. "Eh. Sucks." Then he brightened. "But check this out!" He brought his hands together in a series of rapid seals that Hinata had never seen before. Suddenly, the pit was full of Narutos.

"Shadow clones!" the dozen Narutos caroused.

The veins around Hinata's eyes bulged as she used her Byakugan to examine them. "They're... I can't tell which is the real you, Naruto," she said, too amazed to stutter. "That's amazing."

I want to learn how to do that, a small part thought. It would be nice to have someone to spar against, in the old family dojo. Even if it was just herself.

To her shock, Naruto actually blushed beat red at her small compliment.

Shikamaru turned to Hinata. "You can henge, right? You were almost top of our class."

He knew that? "Y-yes."

The boy nodded, a gleam in his eyes. He tipped his head up again. This time, he was definitely gazing at the clouds. "I have a plan."


OoOoO


Iruka was prepared, but it was still impressive to see dozens of perfectly formed shadow clones boil up over the edge of the pit. Naruto had created so many that they stood on three sets of shoulders to climb up and out.

For the sake of the 'test', Iruka pretended not to see two of the clones were actually a henged Hinata and Shikamaru, the rope he'd hidden in the mud tied securely around their waists so they would not lose each other in the crush of bodies. Once out of the pit, they used the sea of orange to lose the rope and try to blend in.

The crowd of Narutos surrounded Iruka. "Hi, sensei!" they all yelled, probably meaning to sound cheerful. From a mob this size, it was daunting. "You said you'd be at the academy?"

He did, but he decided to teach the kid that patience was a virtue. Iruka stood, back stiff and hands clasped behind his back. "Naruto. Where are your team mates?"

The Naruto's grin was feral. Then, in a poof of smoke, he dismissed his clones, leaving just three. Shikamaru and Hinata dropped their henges.

"We're right here!" Naruto said. "All three of us came up together, so you have to train us all. So there!"

Iruka's eye twitched. Did his chuunin-sensei teach the kid no manners? "Do you think this is a joke?" he snapped, voice rising. "Did I not give you very simple directions?"

In the face of his anger, Naruto looked less sure. "But-"

"Enough!" Iruka looked to Shikamaru and Hinata, who wilted. "I don't have to take even two of you as my students," he lied, "I could fail you all three for insubordination. Maybe I should! What do you have to say for yourselves?"

Hinata looked down again, and Shikamaru looked even more bland - both tells for nervousness he'd have to train out of them.

Hinata surprised him by speaking. "Apologies, Sensei." Her voice was so quiet he had to strain to her. "We...we..." Then, to Iruka's inner delight, her fist clenched and she raised her head to look straight at him, white-violet eyes determined. "It took all three to get out of the pit: Shikamaru's plan, Naruto's clones, and I found the rope. We wish to be trained together..." she swallowed, the determination sputtering out, and looked down again. "Or not at all."

"Is. That. So," Iruka grit out. He didn't put out killing intent, but his aura took on a dangerous, sharper edge. "Do you two boys feel the same?"

Shikamaru let out breath that might have started as a sigh, but came out scared. "Yes."

Naruto nodded his head vicariously, though he looked distinctly green.

Iruka was impressed. He'd devised this test to see where the weaknesses in his team lay-find out who would turn on the other-instead, they had banded together and turned on him.

If that's what they did to win over their teacher, he could only imagine what they'd do against an enemy.

"Excellent," Iruka said, clipped and standing down, pulling his aura back. "All three pass. Welcome to Team 7."

Naruto's mouth dropped open. "Wait...You mean...?"

"Yes, Naruto," he said in exaggerated slowness. The boy was a little thick. "You pass."

The outburst was immediate. "YAAAAY! We passed! I'm going to be a Ninja! Hinata! Shikamaru!" He turned and threw his arms around the other two's necks, bringing them into a crushing hug. All mud-splattered and... so, so young. "Ninja, Ninja, Ninja!"

Iruka felt a twitch start in his temple above his natural eye. This was going to be a very interesting team, indeed.