Naruto peered into the alleyway, carefully controlling his breathing. He couldn't see anything hiding back there in the early light of dawn, but that meant nothing. Seeing was no longer believing for the genin.

In the month he had been in Sunagakure, he had learned a lot. He learned that his breathing was loud, his steps were loud, his heartbeat was loud, his blinking was loud. And each of these lessons had been learned on the end of Zabuza's fist.

Naruto still wasn't sure about how he felt about his new teacher. The man was prone to sudden, immediate, and painful correction of any and all errors. During exercises, Naruto always knew when he lost, because his body would suddenly start accelerating in whichever direction Zabuza punted him. Anyone but Naruto would have suffered an extended stay in the hospital by the end of the first week.

Naruto knew he could take the punishment, however, and Zabuza seemed to know it too. The former missing-nin was vigorous in punishment, but only when correction was needed. When Naruto got something right, Zabuza showed a surprising amount of respect, in his own rough way.

Considering what Zabuza was teaching him, Naruto wasn't sure if that was a good thing.

"Orange! Orange!"

Naruto grinned and waved back at the kid who was shouting at him. "Ayuchi! How are yah, squirt?" he asked with a shout.

Ayuchi grinned and ran up to Naruto. Like most of the kids Naruto had seen in the village, Ayuchi was both familiar and strange. He was shorter than Naruto was used to for his age, with browner skin and dull brown hair, and he was dressed in simple earth tone shirts and pants, with simple sandals. But for all the visual differences, the kid might as well be Konohamaru's long lost sibling. He was loud, he was obnoxious, he was fun, and he was a friend.

The child was also fascinated by Naruto, specifically his clothes. Naruto had noticed early on that bright colors and tones simply did not factor into the Suna lifestyle. Everything was dull, and usually brown. Because of this, his bright blond hair and outrageous orange jumpsuit stood out like a sore thumb. Adults usually looked at him oddly, and those in the know often had some fear in their eyes, undoubtedly equating him with Gaara. But the children, they were spellbound by the strange, loud, bright stranger in their midst.

Naruto opened his mouth to say something, but Ayuchi's eyes twitched slightly upward, and even as he silently cursed, Naruto was in motion. He tucked and rolled forward, summoning a pair of clones as he did so. He ignored the sound of an attack passing over his head and came out of his tumble just as his first clone grabbed Ayuchi and threw the boy down the street in a long, gentle arc.

Naruto grabbed the second clone and tossed it even harder in a much more linear path. Comfortable that the second would catch the kid, Naruto finally dedicated himself to his surroundings, ducking another blow even as he turned to face his opponent.

Already ducking, he had no chance to avoid the knee to the gut. He grunted, folding over Zabuza's leg, before vanishing in a puff of smoke.

Zabuza watched as the first clone started to circle him, even as the now distant second clone caught the madly laughing local kid. He cracked his knuckles and sent his student a cold grin. "Clone decoy, huh? Shouldn't you try something different, little shit?"

The clone smirked, but lost its smirk when Zabuza whirled and punched behind himself, knocking the real Naruto to the ground and dispelling his camouflage technique. "Your breathing hitched right before the attack, little shit." Zabuza grinned in a manner one could call cheerful if you could ignore the sharpened teeth within it. "Still, you're doing better than before. You used to-" Zabuza sent his elbow down, thumping an invisible clone on the crown of its head and dispelling it. "Okay," he admitted, "I'll admit that one got a little closer, but-"

Zabuza had to stop talking at that point, because he was too busy smashing clones. Each one would appear briefly before poofing into non-existence, each one in the middle of an attack. He stepped side to side, casually dodging barely visible kunai, occasionally darting forward to smack another clone before returning to his place, still grinning maniacally.

Eventually, the attacks slowed, then stopped. Naruto remained in the dirt, pinching his nose to stop the bleeding but watching the fight play out all the same. Each failed clone gave him another perspective, another experience where his stealth failed, and each one just added to his expertise. They weren't failures, they were learning experiences, and Zabuza understood this.

After several seconds of stillness, Zabuza nodded to himself and turned to face his student. "So," he said, "How did you find me?"

Naruto smirked. "You had sand pears for breakfast."

"So? I know full well my scent is largely gone."

"They give you gas, Zabuza-sensei." Naruto leaned into the honorific with a devilish grin.

Zabuza growled, for although his anger had long cooled on the matter, the boy was being a pest. "I hate when you call me that, little shit. I'm not your damned sensei. I'm just getting paid to teach you so some day you'll be a big shit instead."

"Exactly, sensei."

Zamuza managed to keep his snarl for several seconds, but it broke when Naruto started to sniff at him. The scowl broke into a frown, which slowly turned into a sharp toothed grin. "Okay, yes, you got me with that one. How'd you really find me?"

Naruto stood and brushed himself off, rubbed out the little bit of blood still on his lip, and gave a big smile to his snarly teacher. "I sent out some clones when I woke up for the daily exercise. One of them spotted how the civilians all seemed to be shying slightly away from the alleyway and dispelled to inform me. I assume it was a side effect of your killing intent?"

Zabuza nodded and crossed his arms, going into full lecture mode. "Yes. Killing intent is presented as something you must push outward, almost as a technique, although it requires no skill and no chakra, but that's bullshit. It's not something you push out, it's something you pull in.

"All living things can detect your killing intent to some degree. Shinobi tend to grow accustomed to it through exposure, and eventually it fades into the background, an occasionally useful feeling that tells you you're being hunted. Same goes for predatory creatures. We both live in a world of kill or be killed, and only those strong enough to learn to resist the fear it triggers will survive.

"Civilians, like all prey, are far more sensitive to it. Even if they don't understand it, the little part in their brain that says something dangerous is close can be tripped by even the slightest amount. It's because of this that shinobi who excel at infiltration tend to have great control of their killing intent, or have little of it to begin with."

"That's why I never feared Haku, isn't it?" asked Naruto.

Zabuza nodded, and for a brief moment, a genuine smile crossed his face. "Yeah. Haku was never big on the messier parts of being a missing-nin, but he was very good at working his way into towns and getting supplies. I have enough murder in me to cover us both, and it was nice to be able to eat real food on occasion."

Zabuza's smile turned into a smirk. "It's amazing what you can spot when you realize how killing intent works. Once I left Kirigakure and became a missing-nin, I made my reputation by hunting down other missing-nin and hardened killers. Walking into a town and spotting the target immediately because the civilians around them instinctively lean away is one of the finer things in life, seconded only by a quick, clean kill."

Naruto looked troubled. Zabuza nodded to the kid, inviting him to speak. After a moment, the boy looked up and asked, "Did they deserve it?"

"Deserve?" Zabuza snorted, but his smirk faded. "Hell of a question, little shit. Most of them, yeah, they deserved it, about as much as I did anyhow. We're killers by trade, Uzumaki, and any professional killer who can't hack it in their village is usually the worst of our kind." He looked down at the dirt beneath his feet for a moment, but when he looked up again, his smirk was back. "Good thing you Konoha pussies couldn't kill me."

"Whatever, Zabuza-sensei. We had you dead to rights, and you damn well know it." Naruto chuckled, and was glad to hear the almost silent laugh he got in return. What had started as a serious disagreement had turned into a running gag between the two of them, Konoha's weakness against the fact that they still, in his own words, "beat his ass like a drum." Zabuza seemed to get great amusement from his experience in Wave country, and if he was going to give Naruto shit about it, Naruto was going to give it right back.

The moment ended, and Zabuza waved a hand at Naruto. "Technique practice is at sundown. Don't forget your girlfriend."

"She's not my girlfriend!" shouted Naruto, trying and failing to cover the fading sound of Zabuza's parting jeer. Naruto scowled at the sand for a moment, then snorted and started working his way over to Ayuchi, who had watched the entire event at a distance with wide eyes. "Sorry about that, kid," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Was in the middle of a lesson when you found me. What's up?"

Whatever Ayuchi's original intention, it had long been swept away. Instead, all he could do was hop in place, arms outstretched, and shout, "Again! Again! Toss me again!"

Naruto's days were divided, much to his dismay. Life in Suna revolved around the desert and its habits. He woke before dawn for training in stealth, hunting, and evasion with Zabuza. Shortly after sunrise, Naruto reported in for D-rank missions, which were often done before noon. Anything not done by then, and not vital enough to need immediate attention, waited a few hours for the temperature to lower slightly at that point. And then, when the sun started to set, he and Temari would meet with Zabuza, who supervised the two of them as Temari tried to train Naruto in his element, having been promised more advanced techniques once Naruto caught up to her.

"Hey, Kankuro, Princess," he said as he approached the round structure that the Kazekage used for business, immediately ducking a blow from Temari. Kankuro laughed. He always laughed, which was why Naruto got along with him so well. Many of the people in Suna seemed grim, and he could admit that life here was certainly less lavish than elsewhere. But he laughed at hardship, and so did Kankuro, and that laughter became a bridge between their different lives. "We got anything good today?" he asked, once Temari settled for glowering at him, albeit in a cheerful manner.

Sunagakure had learned very quickly that Temari and Naruto got along like a house on fire. They nettled and argued and one-upped each other, all in good fun. Admittedly, she tended to act almost like Sakura used to, giving him a good swat whenever he pushed too many buttons at once, and calling her Princess was a big one, all the more so because her new nickname was beginning to get around Suna. Naruto considered himself lucky. The last Suna shinobi who called her that to her face lost three teeth.

"Actually," said Kankuro, grinning even more than usual, "if we kept our spot in the rotation, we might have a good C-rank waiting for us. Travel outside the village and everything. Try to not deserve to be swatted by my sister in front of the Kazekage, yeah? I'd ask you to look professional, but…"

"Yeah, yeah," said Naruto, swatting the puppet user lightly in the arm as they walked through the door. "Not my fault your sister's psych-ow!"

"Shush," said Temari, trying to ignore the jonin at the doors, who were either angry at them or desperately trying not to laugh at the show, to judge by their painfully still faces. Naruto gave her one more smirk before he forced his face to relax into the sort of bland disinterest that most of the Suna shinobi seemed to show when on official duty.

They walked up a long spiral staircase that wound its way up to inside of the building around a big, open atrium. A shuttered skylight above let light into the atrium, and a single tree grew within it, a gift from Konohagakure from the end of the Third Shinobi War that was taking up much of the space of the atrium and leaving the floor below in shadow. Each floor of the building had a small balcony that wrapped around the atrium, allowing access to the rooms that ran all the way along the walls.

After several floors, they entered the office of the Kazekage and lined up quietly before him. The man sat alone, in a small and unimpressive chair behind a large but unimpressive desk covered with scrolls. He looked up as they walked in, but his face did not change from its habitual scowl before his eyes dropped back to the paperwork he was writing. He reached over to one side, grabbed a scroll, and lightly tossed it to Temari, all without giving them a second glance or even taking pencil from paper. "Escort North for trade. Baki will be busy elsewhere, so you're in charge, Kankuro. List on the scroll, money and travel papers at the gate." He looked up again, and for a moment, the scowl lifted just slightly, as close to a smile as the Kazekage tended to get while on duty. "Don't spend all your savings."

The three genin bowed and marched out the door in an orderly manner, which ended the moment they got out of the Kazekage's sight. Temari and Kankuro both cheered, much to Naruto's confusion. One of the jonin door guards broke her usual stoney silence with a laugh and asked, "Trade mission?" This got another grin and a nod from the two Suna genin.

"So," asked Naruto as they walked towards the main gate, a relatively narrow and well guarded pass through the rock walls that surrounded Sunagakure, "What's with all the excitement? What's our mission?"

Kankuro smirked. "It's the best C-rank they offer here. It usually goes to a team that is fractured or under strength, otherwise, it goes on a rotation. We get to head north to the edge of the desert to trade for needed supplies, then come back."

Naruto shrugged. In theory, they counted as under strength without Baki, but he suspected that his current team was considered both of those qualifiers mostly thanks to his status as a newcomer, in spite of their individual strength. He knew Temari was chafing a little at being stuck with D-ranks for the last month, and even Kankuro was growing unamused at the tasks they had been getting. "So? You like to haggle or something?"

Temari gave him a swat. "So, it means that we have access to a trade hub. You remember how you said there is no good ramen around here?"

Naruto nodded, his face falling. He'd run out of ramen weeks ago, only to discover that the local shops did not sell any brands he considered worth purchase. Most of what he had found was tasteless and disgustingly salty. Ramen was apparently treated like field rations back home, emergency food to be eaten only where there was no choice and packed with nutrients that made it at best a bland meal. He often saw busy shinobi eating it dry, straight from the packaging. It was horrifying.

Temari grinned. "Well, now's your chance to stock up. Three days out, one day to buy the goods on our list and seal them, three days back. Pack some sealing scrolls and all the money you want to spend on luxuries, because we won't get this mission again any time soon."

"How long will it be?" Naruto asked, already trying to determine how much he wanted to spend.

Kankuro and Temari shared a look, and the puppeteer shrugged. "This is our first time on trade duty, mostly because of our brother's… temperament." The siblings frowned, and Naruto thought he saw Temari's hand shake slightly as she suppressed a shudder. "But from what we've heard from others, it might be six months or more before we get another chance, assuming we're not out on another mission when it comes up."

Naruto upped his planned expenditure, adding in some from his savings as well. He was suddenly very glad of the prize money for the photo of Kakashi's face. While he had few needs here in Suna, he had several wants, and that hefty payment might be his only means of getting any of them filled during his stay.

While the pay for the D-ranks he'd taken with his temporary team was about the same as back home, they were far less common, and many tasks that were needed by the village's infrastructure were done with severely reduced pay. Rent was cheap, mostly because few people here outright owned their property, instead renting directly from the Kazekage's office. Basic foods were also relatively cheap, being mostly provided by the low pay D-ranks.

The same was true of shinobi goods. Local iron was mined by cheap shinobi labor, forged by slightly less cheap shinobi labor, and sold at no profit by retired or disabled shinobi who lived off a pension. Genin who were learning how to make storage seals and explosive tags on the slightly thick paper made from the greenhouses had their successful efforts being sold by those same shopkeepers. The barest needs of the shinobi of Sunagakure were met without any undue difficulty.

But the moment you looked for an item that could not be made with Sunagakure labor and materials, prices skyrocketed, and that was if you could find those items at all. Naruto was surprised to find that a simple piece of candy could cost more than a good meal, especially if that candy was made from anything but honey, which could be collected from the beehives used for pollination in the greenhouses

"Hey," he said after a few moments, "why is it hard to find ramen and stuff here, anyhow? Like, why don't they just bring more stuff in?"

Kankuro snorted. "Few reasons, Uzumaki." He held out his hand, index finger extended. "First, it's a long trip even by shinobi standards, never mind civilian traders. It takes us three days of running over the sand to get to the nearest trade hub, which means it might take civilians a month to do it. Here and back, that's a couple months of work for one cart of sales, which is hardly worth the difficult trip."

He raised a second finger. "Second, there is risk versus reward. Right now, Sunagakure has reached a point where we have little money to entice trade to come to our city. If you're a merchant, and you make the long trip through a dangerous desert, only to find out nobody can afford your fine silks or spices or whatever, you just lost a few months of time for no profit. Why bother, when you can make at least as much money selling elsewhere?"

Temari grunted, her face sliding easily into a serious expression. "Don't forget how dangerous the desert is for non-shinobi, Naruto. You were pretty roughed up by the time we arrived. Imagine if you were a civilian, spending months to get here and back. Sandstorms, heatstroke, frostbite, poisonous creatures, even some bandits on the edge of the sand. Nobody's going to deal with that for a village with little money to spare. The same things that makes our village a stronghold also makes it poorly suited to trade."

"Third," Kankuro continued, nodding along to his sister's comment, "there is the lack of money in general. With business being so slow for the village, we simply don't have the money for much. We could send some genin more often, but they'd have no money to buy goods."

He tucked his hands into his pockets and shrugged, gesturing with his elbow at an empty storefront, the windows obscured with dust and dirt. "Ultimately, nothing changes because nothing can change. Can't get trade without money, can't encourage the local economy without trade, can't get more money into the system without more third party missions, and we probably won't be getting an increase in those after this last exam. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. I know dad's hoping to fix it before the next Kazekage takes office, but at this rate..."

Naruto stopped, looking into the empty storefront silently while the others kept moving on. Just visible through the filth, he could see countless bins and racks, and a counter with a small mechanical till, all covered with dust. A big chalk board was behind the counter, still proudly proclaiming the quality and value of the products within, with a small message in the corner, hastily scrawled, that said "going out of business sale."

Kankuro and Temari came to a stop a few steps later, then shared a glance and wandered back. Naruto was staring into the closed shop, his eyes narrow, and his lips were moving as if he was mumbling to himself. After almost a minute, Temari reached out and tapped Naruto on the shoulder, resisting the urge to flinch, as being spaced out and mumbling was often a bad sign with her younger sibling.

Naruto turned, his eyes distant for a moment, before he focused on them and smiled. "Sorry," he said, shaking his head. "Just doing some math."

Three days of travel lead them to a large and bustling town that worked as the civilian section of the small shinobi village of Ishigakure. Ishigakure was nowhere near as powerful as even the smallest of the five great villages, but it was well known for training its shinobi not as assassins and warriors, but as guards and watchers, which they commonly sent out on escort missions with caravans and important people. It was a small niche in the shinobi world, but one that fit them well, and Ishi guards were considered to be level headed and polite in addition to strong defenders.

The town was obviously a trading hub for the village, with roads leading to the lands of Earth and Fire. When they had approached, Naruto had scuffed his feet in the dust, and in doing so found that there was once a rough roadway in the direction of the Land of Wind, although it had become disused over time.

They had arrived at the town walls, a thick band of stone that had the smooth and uniform look of jutsu-produced stone. There Kankuro, the nominal leader of the mission, checked in with the shinobi guarding the gates. The two men wore the mark of Ishigakure, and both looked at the three young shinobi with mild interest.

The older of the two men, a short and somewhat squat man with a curved sword taller than he was strapped across his back, nodded at them when they approached. "Trade from Sunagakure, I take it?"

Kankuro nodded and handed over one of the two scrolls he had picked up from the gate guards back in Suna. This scroll contained a copy of his orders, signed by the Kazekage, as well as a formal written request for permission to enter the town addressed to the captain of security for the town. The permission had long become meaningless courtesy, a routine so often used it stopped being necessary and became… well, routine. "I take it you are Nagase no Odachi?"

The short man grinned and pointed at the sword over his back. "What was the first hint?" he asked with a chuckle. He then eyed the three of them. "Don't recognize you. First supply run for you kids?"

When the genin nodded, Nagase's partner suddenly glared at them and stepped forward. He was a tall and thin man, his face hidden by a blue scarf and several braces of kunai going across his chest and waist. "Rules," he said in a rough voice. "No fighting. No jutsu. No espionage. When you enter, you're a civilian who just happens to be a shinobi. If there is a problem, talk to one of us, because if trouble happens, we tend to solve it on both ends, usually permanently. Understood?"

The team nodded, somewhat nervously, and Nagase's nudged his partner roughly in the ribs. "None of that, Sato. We've never had a problem with the trade squads from Suna, no need to be your usual friendly self." He turned to the kids and smiled. "Look, just don't get into any trouble. If a problem comes up, come talk to one of the guards before you start tossing jutsu, okay?" He waved them off when they nodded, and the two guards went back to leaning against the wall.

Nagase rubbed his jaw for a moment and then glanced at his partner as the genin walked into the town. "Half wonder if these will be the ones who figure out that Shen's been screwing them in pricing. That short fellow in orange looks like the description of Konohagakure's jinchuuriki. The one from the last chunin exam. And we both know who trained him."

Sato grunted and rubbed his left arm. "I half wonder. I still owe Kakashi one for that one time with the noble's daughter."

Nagase rolled his eyes. "You tried to stab the man when he was only there to deliver a message, Sato! How did you think he'd react to a genin trying to sneak attack him? Failed at the sneak part, I might add."

"Yes, yes, all's fair in shinobi warfare. But did he really have to kancho* me in front of her entire family?"

Naruto found himself unimpressed by "Shen's Trade Emporium."

The shop was a mostly run-down warehouse. A small shack, installed in front of one of the big loading doors, held a few samples, a counter, a register, and Wakata Shen, a doughy older man whose dull eyes almost sparkled with greed the moment he saw the Sunagakure team arrive at his doorway.

"Ahh, welcome, welcome! Always a pleasure to see to the needs of my good friends in the Sand!" He wasted no time, but immediately handed Kankuro a clipboard covered with paper, with a worn down pencil attached to it with some dirty twine. "Just mark on the sheets what you need, and I'll send a worker to gather it. Take your time, have a look at the samples! Here, have a treat on me!" He handed each of the kids a small paper-wrapped cube from a small bowl on the counter, which Naruto realized with a moment's inspection contained a small chunk of chocolate. He sniffed at it discreetly, and when Shen turned away from him, he added it back to the bowl with just as much discretion.

Temari glanced at him, saw his frown and exaggerated glance at the bowl, then dropped her candy on the floor, flicking it with her sandle to slide under the counter. Kankuro saw the exchange and palmed his own. Naruto nodded quickly to them, then said in a loud childish tone, "Gee, thanks for the candy, stranger! I always love unsolicited candy! Helps me think! We'll just go browse the samples and start marking down our order, then!" Temari and Kankuro's faces froze while they resisted the urge to laugh at his acting, and once Shen stopped looking at Naruto with a confused expression, they followed him into a corner of the shop.

"It's not just chocolate," said Naruto quietly, flipping through the clipboard and glancing at the listed prices and volumes. "There's alcohol in them, a lot of it. Smells a little musty too."

Temari looked around at the corners and walls. "This whole place is musty," she mumbled, fingering a small bolt of cloth that looked soft and felt rough. "I think this place must be closed most of the time. There is a lot of dust ground into the samples."

Kankuro nodded, holding up a tool from a toolbox and smiling as if pleased. "The whole place is poorly maintained. Rusty hinges on the doors, nails sticking out oddly. The place is a shithole. Not sure why the gate guards back home suggested this place."

"Convenience pricing," said Naruto quietly, showing them the clipboard, where he had marked several items. "This is a wholesale warehouse, which usually means lower pricing for bulk purchases, but I know these items are from Konoha, and there is no way the price should be this high. They're charging more, possibly for the convenience of having it all housed in one place." Naruto looked up, and Kankuro stepped back slightly at the glare on the blond's face. "And these gate guards back in Suna, do they always suggest this place?"

Temari's eyes narrowed. "You think they're getting a kickback?"

Naruto shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe they remember it from their genin days, and the place used to be better. Maybe they think it's funny, in which case your dad's going to be pissed when I tell him. Either way, we might be better off shopping around a bit."

"Think we can get the list filled elsewhere?" Kankuro asked, somewhat doubtfully. "We only have a day scheduled for this place."

Naruto smirked as he turned to drop the clipboard off at the counter. "Who needs time when we have numbers?"

"Excuse me, Nagase-san?"

Nagase blinked and looked away from the civilians he was watching to find the orange genin from the Suna trade party waiting patiently next to him. "Yes?"

Naruto stood to attention, his face formally blank. "As a visiting shinobi, I respect your rules and your boundaries. I am here to request permission to use a jutsu within your territory."

"Oh? What for?"

"I wish to use a clone jutsu to speed up the search for suitable vendors. We have a long list of things to get, and only a day to get them."

Nagase crossed his arms. "And if I say no?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Naruto thought for a moment, then gave the guard a cheeky grin. "Then I'll have to try and outsmart the watchers I'm sure you already have on me. No offense."

Nagase glared at the boy for several moments, before he started to grin back. "I'd expect nothing less from any kid, never mind a shinobi. Go ahead, but not henge, so you'll be easier to keep an eye on, okay? And if you are who I think you are, no going invisible either."

"Nagase!" Sato stood up, his hands rising to the bandoleer on his chest. "That's a shinobi, and possibly an enemy!"

Nagase rolled his eyes and shooed the genin away. "Oh, come off it, Sato. If Konoha or Suna wanted to stomp us flat, would they really need whatever information a bunch of genin could provide? Pride is all well and good, but not when it makes you blind to reality. Let's see what the little guy is going to do."

Naruto scurried over to his two teammates. "Right, how many items on the list," he said, taking the scroll from Kankuro's unresisting hands.

"Uhh… about fifty," he said. Temari said nothing, at a loss for words. He asked permission? They gave permission?

Naruto nodded, and quickly made one hundred clones, drawing a surprise gulp from Sato and a smirk from Nagase. "Alright, guys, you all got a copy. Half of you, find the items, check in when you have to get the money from Kankuro." The left side of the crowd shouted in agreement. "Other half, you guys are to look into pricing in general, make note of other possible goods, and find me some damn ramen!" The right side of the crowd shouted louder, and a few cheered. "I'm going to go find somewhere to eat, and then the three of us are going to the market to meet up! Hey, wait..." He turned to Nagase. "Are there any really big, obvious landmarks in the market area?"

Nagase shrugged. "Got a fountain. A fountain. Singular. Can't miss it."

"Thanks!" He turned back to the waiting crowd, ignoring the odd looks he was starting to get from civilians passing by. "You heard the man, I'll be at the fountain in an hour or so! Get to it!" He ignored the cheers and shouts as his clones started to scatter and turned to Kankuro and Temari, who were looking at him oddly. "So," he said with and obviously false air of casual conversation, "I'm thinking ramen for lunch. You?"

It was at the ramen stand, on his fourth bowl, that Naruto noticed he was being watched. It was a young man, only a few years older and a foot taller than Kankuro, who was sitting in another booth across the room, the privacy curtain drawn back so he could stare at the genin trio.

The man was thin but well muscled, which was obvious, as he wore only a pair of red pants. He slid his hand through slicked back grey hair when he saw Naruto look his way, and he smirked when Naruto started to turn away again. He stood and stomped over to stand in front of the trio, crossing his arms and leaning down to tower over them.

Naruto, Kankuro, and Temari looked into his dull purple eyes and saw nothing but trouble.

"Do you have a moment to talk about the glory of Jashin?" Hidan asked with a manic grin.

Nagase was questioning a civilian merchant about their cart, those questions mostly involving the obvious false bottom and the hidden goods within it, when he heard the shouts. He stood and glanced at the smoke cloud coming from near the market district, then sighed and drew his odachi as Sato pointed at him and laughed.

"Shut up," he said to his partner as they began to run.

* Kancho is what Kakashi does to Naruto during the canon bell test. Basically a butt-poke, which if you think about it, might be more than a little embarrassing to receive in front of a noble family.

A/N: Hah! Finally! This chapter gave me no end of trouble, mostly because I was stuck trying to figure out how to proceed without being painfully boring, as well as avoiding something I wanted to bring up later. Plus side, updates might be faster for a bit, as I half wrote Sakura's next bit while I was brainstorming.

Sunagakure in this story is being presented as Konoha's economic mirror. Its people live, but it is not a good life, and at this point in the story, it has fallen so behind in its economy it is very difficult to climb out of the hole. As such, the government is currently subsidizing needs through cheap and somewhat obligatory government labor, but that leaves little room for wants. Traditionally, if they managed to make it to the next generation like this, the entire village might well collapse like a deck of cards, either from depopulation (resulting in less genin to do the subsidizing work) or overpopulation (resulting in greater needs without necessarily resulting in greater output).

Ishigakure has almost no real information available about it, so anything you see in my story about it has been produced whole cloth from my mind, and while I doubt it'll mess with canon any, best to make sure everyone knows.

Oh, and this version of the chapter has been looked over by my beta, Pom Rania.

depressedchildren asked if the ridiculous russian stacking doll villain shenanigans of canon existed in my story. The answer is this: It could have, but will not. As for Orochimaru's motivations, they are quite different from canon, for good reason.

ArturoLJ50 mentioned Jiraiya and asked if there were hot springs in Oto for him to "research". Thank you. Might be an omake in the future. As for Tsunade, she's subject of a future chapter that will explain where she is and why she's not in here just yet.

A Guest asked if the no-decorum meeting was a planned plot point. Planned? No. But when the time came for straight talk, I asked myself how a heavily structured and polite society would handle the need for bluntness to a superior and the request for it, and this is how it ended up.

A different Guest commented that the Hokage would never tell Sasuke about Itachi, as it would ruin Konoha's reputation. I point out that letting Sasuke find out later from another, hostile source, would be far worse, as Sasuke would be out of reach and furious for not being told like what happened in canon. Secrets almost never stay secrets, and the longer they fester the worse they are when they come to light. I also point out that Hiruzen has plausible deniability, because he didn't issue the order.

Sorry, NDead, mythninja omakes will remain omakes, mostly because I don't feel there is enough meat to it to make a good story, at least in my writing style. If anyone else wants to try, you go right ahead, and PM me so I can read it too.

Holocryptic has a good explanation of different sorts of irony, appended to Chapter 36. Thanks!

uchiha akin asked about who is above Gai on the list of intelligent shinobi (I mentioned he was 5th on the list back in chapter 23). In order: Shikaku Nara, Shikamaru Nara, Hiruzen Sarutobi, Hatake Kakashi, and Maito Gai. Keep in mind, this is in Kakashi's opinion, not confirmed fact.

Maeahru was unhappy with how I portrayed Danzo. Don't know how he'll work out in my story, but he's barely been shown. Give it time.

Subzerodx, as you can see, the story still lives. I'm just much busier than I was when I started, so I have less time for writing, as well as regular writer's block as I go off rails. If this ever gets discontinued, I will post a chapter explaining the long term story arc, so at least people would get that much closure.

Lolo, that quote is (probably incorrectly) quoted from the show.

Another bookworm asked about Sasuke's hive interacting with his cursed seal. It has not come up. Yet.

Time2read mentions that canon tailed beasts are not gods. I am aware. But Naruto is not, and the Kyuubi might very well have a reason to lie...

And sorry for the mistake on the name, serialkeller. Will fix it in my next edit run (I swear, this site must have something going on, I'm finding things I am almost certain got fixed, by Pom no less, that are there again.)