Author's notes:

I'M BACK FORM THE DEAD!

Well not really, but it certainly feels like it. Its has been far too long since I've last posted a chapter and I am sorry about that. I wish I could say I had big reason for it but I'm afraid it was plain and simple exhaustion that kept me away. Work has been hectic for the past few months (what with my boss – the man who hired me – quitting without warning), and by the time I get home I'm simply too exhausted to muster up the motivation to write.

So time and energy, the bane of writers everywhere...And procrastinators. Wonder if that's a coincidence.

But thankfully things seem to be getting better again, and I managed to get find the energy over the last month to begin typing again. It may not be my best work I admit, its hard to polish of the rust after so long, (part of the reason why I had trouble is that I had planned the outline for the chapter back in January, and now I'm having trouble typing it out after so long without the character coming out stiff) but hopeful this will help kick start my engines and I'll begin writing in a more reasonable pace again.

And for those of you PMed me with question, I apologize for taking so long to reply but I plan to go through my in-box and reply to all of you over the next couple days, so hang tight for a little while longer.

And on to the chapter itself. Its more of a set up and comedy chapter, things that are introduced here will he help prepare some key issues for the rest of the arc, BUT starting from the end of the next chapter, the twists and action will begin again. So for those looking for action rejoice, your wish is almost granted. Look forward to it.

And honestly, I may have written what may become some of my funniest jokes and scenes in this chapter, so despite behind a little rusty I hope you enjoy it.

Now onto the show.

*Chapter Start*


A Cat's Lot In Life

"I can't believe it."

Shikamaru didn't so much as look up as I dumped another pile of books on the desk in front of him. Giving another tired sigh, he just lazily picked up a book from the top of the pile and began to wrap it with simple brown wrapping paper, completely plain except for a tiny stamp of a dog paw printed on one corner.

Once he finished wrapping the book up he passed it his left, where Naruto gave a grunt of acknowledgment as she took it. Setting down the package before her, Naruto picked the next a name and address from a list on a clipboard she had set on one side, before picking up an ink brush and began to write on the wrapped book with a steady hand.

Out of us all, Naruto had the best hand writing by far which was the reason why she was in charge of writing down the names and addresses. I have never gotten the hang of writing with an ink brush. Ball-point pens were never invented in the Elemental Nations, or if it was then it never managed to gain any popularity, so they only method left to write with was a brush. And to say I was terrible at it would be putting it mildly. Even after a solid decade of being forced to us it, my handwriting still resembled chicken scratches more than actual letters. While Shikamaru had a better hand than me, he tended to get sloppy when in came to writing down the correct names and addresses, so we couldn't give him the task unless we wanted to end up delivering packages to the wrong places.

That left Naruto.

Under her steady hand lines began to form, the brown paper soaking up the ink as the brush was drawn across its surface, leaving behind neat flowing lines and smooth curves. The names she wrote down remind of me calligraphy, more a work of art than mere penmanship. She finished writing the name and address swiftly, setting the package to one side before dipping the brush into an ink well only start all over as Shikamaru passed her another wrapped package.

"No, I mean I literally cannot believe it." I reiterated as I walked to nearby wooden crate and pulled out another stack of books. "How could someone like Kakashi own a bookstore of all things?"

Surrounding us, stacked so high that they nearly brushed the ceiling of the warehouse, were dozens if not hundreds wooden crates. Each filled to the brim with books. And stamp onto the side of each wooden crate was the logo of 'Pakkun's Bookstore', a dog's paw print.

It had been almost two full days since I found out and still I couldn't bring myself to believe this wasn't a dream. That Kakashi, the lazy, porn loving, ever late Hatake Kakashi, owned not one, but an entire a chain of bookstores in Konoha. That alone should of pushed the limits of my incredibility but when you stack on the fact that it was a successful chain of bookstores, it made me feel as if I had accidentally stumbled into a rabbit hole at some point and never realised.

It wasn't that unusual for highly successful ninjas to own other businesses in Konoha. It was actually rather common. It wasn't that hard to understand why, as most ninjas who lived long enough to retire tended to have more money than they knew what to do with. So a lot of veterans who ended up amassing a small fortune over the years would try their hand in running their own businesses – often something to do with their hobbies – though the result of those business venture tended to be a bit of a mixed bag.

Just because ninjas were literally killers didn't mean jack squat in the cut throat world of business. Being a master of stealth and espionage was all well and good but it won't do you much good if no idea how to balance your books, or how to effectively promote your products. Which was why more often than not those businesses tended to end belly up.

Not always though, every now and again one of them would end up becoming booming success. The Yamanaka Clan's flower store was a good example of this, the Akimichi Clan's world renowned restaurants was another.

And now apparently so too was the Hatake Clan's bookstores added to the list of success business started by Shinobi, which was also known as Pakkun's Bookstore.

"Are you really that surprised?" Naruto paused in her writing to pick up a copy of the very book we were packaging and hold it to me with a distasteful face. "I thought it was obvious that the pervert would own something like this."

Held in Naruto's hand was a green covered book with the words 'Icha Icha – Make love, not war' printed on its surface. The latest book of the best selling Icha Icha series, a tale of a Kunoichi who ended a war through seduction – or so Kakashi told me. And even though it had only officially been released in the market for a couple of days it was obviously going to become another best selling book for the series as the sales were already going through the roof.

That was where we came in.

The one thing, literally the only thing that made sense in this entire debacle, was that every branch of Pakkun's Bookstore came stocked with a large supply of Icha Icha books. They had an entire section dedicated solely to the franchise. And for good reason too, as it appeared that that Kakashi had somehow managed to strike a deal with Jiraiya for his stores to become the sole supplier of Icha Icha in the village. Every single copy of the books in Konoha had to pass through one of his stores at one point or another.

And guess who needed an extra set of hands to deliver their newest shipment.

Normally he wouldn't have been able to get away with it. There were laws in place preventing Jonin Instructors from abusing their power. They couldn't just go around ordering their team to do manual labour for them, if they tried then the Hokage's foot would stomp down on them. Hard.

However, like all laws it wasn't perfect. There were ways to work around them, loopholes in the wording of the law that could be exploited by someone devious enough and morally bankrupt to take advantage of them. And as I had the recent misfortune to discover, there are absolutely no laws that prevented a Team Instructor from hiring their own team out for personal missions so long as they go through official channels.

And Kakashi, being the type of prick that he was, was only too happy to abuse this loophole.

I couldn't even begin to tell you how many times we were forced to run from one side of the village to the other, dropping off what felt like countless copies of the newest Icha Icha. Turns out there was a massive hidden fan-base for the series here in Konoha but – unlike our shameless Sensei – most people were too embarrassed to be seen publicly buying a copy. Instead, fans would stop to by a branch of Pakkun's Bookstore, pretend to buy a copy of some random book, and while they checkout at the cash register they'd quietly place an order for a copy of Icha Icha with the store clerk to be delivered to their homes in a later date – discretely of course. All books will be covered in plain brown wrapping paper to hide their content from any prying eyes.

And there were a lot of orders.

Even after two full days of packing and delivering the book, we were not even half done. We spent the last two mornings here, stuck in this warehouse packaging and labeling books, only to spend the rest of the day running from house to house hand delivering them to the customers. We couldn't even take advantage of Shadow Clones, Kakashi forbidding both Naruto and me from using them for some reason.

Kakashi claimed that our work was meant to double up as training. Not only would this help as a team building exercise but by personally traveling though every street in Konoha – and I mean every goddamn street, I wasn't exaggerating the size of the hidden Icha Icha fan-base – we would familiarise ourselves with the layout of the entire village, a skill that would prove invaluable in future missions or in the event the village was ever attacked.

It was all bullshit of course. Reasonable sounding bullshit, but still bullshit.

Kakashi just needed some cheap laborer to deliver his goods and we just happened to be available. Well that, and I was also half way convinced that he fed off the suffering of children. I swear there better be some kind of legitimate training or team-building excises behind it all because if I ever find out that the only reason that he banned the use of Shadow Clones was to watch us suffer then I was gonna sick Naruto on him.

"Oh come on!" I was brought out of mussing by Naruto groaning in exasperation as she stared down at the list of customers, "He's a pervert too?"

I gave Naruto a mildly surprised look at her latest outburst. At the start of the mission Naruto would explode every couple of minutes whenever she spotted a name on the list she recognized, which there was a surprising lot of. I don't think she'd ever be able to look at Iruka in the same way every again. And the stink eye she gave Shikamaru when she spotted his father's name made me eternally gratefully that none of my relatives were on the list. Well, none of my direct relatives anyway. The Hyuuga was a big clan and I would have been more surprised to find that none of my clan-mates were on the list than the other way round. Though thankfully it wasn't anyone I usually interacted with. It would have been … awkward to say the least if I found out that my dad, or god forbid my mother, had brought a copy of the book.

As time wore on Naruto's reactions steadily began to diminish as she ran into more and more names that she recognised, until she ended up limiting herself to a low grumbling whenever someone she knew cropped up on the list.

Which made her latest outburst a bit of surprise. Naturally, I decided to investigate.

Hauling the latest pile of books out of the crate, I brought them to Shikamaru and set them down on the desk before I walked over to Naruto and glanced over her shoulder.

It took me a full second to spot the name was staring at, and another second to the fully process the implication. And when I did, I felt a wicked smile bloom on my lips.

"Naruto," my eyes never moving off the name as I spoke, "I'm calling dibs. I want to deliver this one personally."

"You sure?" Naruto turned her blue eyes up to me in askance, before shrugging. "Fine, its not as if it makes a difference anyway." She then turned back to the list, giving it a distasteful look. "Still, I never thought he was a pervert too. He seemed so nice too. Is ever man in the village a closet pervert or is it just a coincidence that almost all of my classmate's dads are on this list."

"Oh, Naruto," I felt my cheeks hurt from how wide I was smiling. "Its wasn't her dad that ordered the book, it was someone else."

"What?" she blinked, turning to look up at me in surprised. "But Hikaru his name and house address is written right here."

She pointed at a spot on the list, where the name and address of said customer was clearly printed out in plain black and white. Though unlike every other customer on the list, there was no first name there, just their last.

And knew precisely why.

Naruto frowned down at the name again, a thoughtful look on her face. "But if its not him, then who else could it be?"


Hurried footsteps could be heard coming from the inside the house, their owner of the feet yelling out an 'I'll get it' as they rushed towards the door. I barely had the chance to remove my hand off the door after knocking before it was swung open, revealing the nervous eager face of one Ino Yamanaka.

"Hello," She chirped, nervous energy to pushing speak before she even had the chance to realise who she was talking to, "are you here to deliver– Hikaru?" Ino exclaimed, her rapid fire chattering came to a grinding halt as she finally took in the sight of me.

For a few second the blonde girl did nothing but stare, her pale blues blinking owlishly, clearly confused. "Hikaru, what are you doing here?"

"Hello Ino." I said warmly, brushing aside her confusion as I gave her the widest, shit eating grin I could manage.

She tensed, like a rabbit spotting the shadow of a hawk passing overhead, her survival instincts no doubt warning her of danger, but before she had a chance to do anything, I acted. "I have a package to deliver for you."

Reaching down into the backpack I had set down near my feet and pulled out a plain brown package – the Icha Icha volume that I was to deliver to this address – and held up before my face. "Care to guess as what it might be?"

There was a second, a long moment in which Ino stared in honest confusion between the package and me several time, before her eyes widened in comprehension as understood, her face turning a shade so red that it looked she caught on fire.

I swear, the memory of a blushing Ino as she dissolved into a stuttering mess will warm my heart for many years to come.


They called Konoha a village.

And perhaps once upon a time it was one, but that was not quite true anymore. Konoha had grown since its founding. From its humble beginning of the union of two clans, it quickly grew into something never witness before in the entire history of the Elemental Nations.

A Hidden Village.

What began as a collection of huts had expanded into something that more reminiscent of a busy town, or even a small city, than it did a village. In terms of Shinobi alone, Konoha's population numbered in the tens of thousands. Add in the civilians population to the mix then that number would easily quadruple.

The term Hidden 'Village' could no longer accurately describe what Konoha had become but as most things tended to do, the name stuck. It made a sort of sense I suppose. Konohagakure no sato meant the 'Village Hidden in the Leaves'. The 'Town Hidden in the Leaves' didn't have quite the same ring to it.

The point being was that Konoha had rapidly expanded since it founding, and with it, so had the number of missions it received.

There was a time not too long ago when the number of missions the Village would received in a day could be counted with the fingers of a single hand. Back then every single mission was handled by the Hokage himself, who would either accept or reject each offer personally on behalf of the entire Village before assigning the approved missions to a team he would have personally handpicked.

Those times were long gone.

These days there were dozens people working full time whose only jobs were to keep track of the massive influx of mission requests Konoha received. It was they who met with the clients, negotiated a contract before assigning an available team to compete it. Only important clients, such as the Daimyo, where ever exempt from this process.

In theory, this meant that the Hokage was no longer needed to involve himself in the daily grind of missions assignments, freeing up a lot of time that could now be spent on far much more crucial matters. However Sarutobi, always the sentiment sort, loved to personally get involved with the daily lives of his Shinobi whenever he could, and would take time from his busy schedule to personally assign missions to his men. During certain times of the year it wasn't an unusual sight to find the aging Hokage handing out the missions to newly minted Genin, spending a couple of extras minutes to spare them a few words of encouragement.

It was little things like that made the village as a whole see him as father figure, or perhaps it was a grandfatherly figure these days.

It was, I suppose, a way for him to get to personally know his newest recruits, to remember their faces and get a feel of them. But of course, even he couldn't do this all the time. Even if he tried to limit himself to just fresh Genin there was simply too many of us for him to handle on his own. Which was why he would only limit himself to meeting new Genin teams for their first couple of mission assignments. After that the new Genin teams would head to the 'Assignment Center', located in one of the lower levels of the Hokage Tower, whenever they needed to pick a new mission like most other teams did.

Most being the operative word.

Our team was one of the exceptions. Every mission we took we personally received from the Hokage. Everyday, instead of stopping by the Assignment Center, we climbed the steps to the top of the tower and headed to the Hokage's office to report the completion of our last assignment or to receive a new one.

Some people would have a called it favoritism, others may even go as far as say it was nepotism. Personally I called it common sense. No matter how many times people tried to convince themselves otherwise, we were not all equal. An Academy student barely managing to keep up with the rest his class was less valuable than a prized student blazing through the coursework with ease. A child born to a Clan of ninjas gifted with a powerful bloodline limit would always be given more attention then an ordinary child coming from a civilian family.

There were right to do so.

People could call it whatever they wanted to, but the simple fact of the matter it wasn't favoritism that saw my team standing in front of the Hokage almost ever day. It was pragmatism. And if ninjas were anything, they were pragmatic.

To treat a team with two Clan Heirs, both of whom were considered to be geniuses in their own regard, along with a Jinchuuriki of the most powerful Tailed Beast as if they were just any other random Genin team would have been the height of stupidity.

No one had ever accused Sarutobi of being stupid.

So when we found ourselves lining up before the Hokage in his office that morning, with the old man sitting behind his desk, chewing on the tip of an unlit pipe with his usual genial smile sitting on his lips, no one thought anything unusual of it, it was just another day for team 7.

No one but me that is.

I had been counting the days since my unexpected encounter with Danzo, and it had been fourteen days. Exactly two weeks. And while it was entirely possible that nothing unusual would happen today, that we'd pick another random mission from the Hokage and be sent on our way as usual, I didn't believe it.

Say what you will of the man but Danzo had never stuck me as the type of person to fail to deliver on his promises.


"I still can't believe you kept that cat, Jiji."

Said cat meowed from where she lounged atop of the Hokage's desk, lazily turning its head to glance towards Naruto in apparent surprise. Or at least, I thought it was in surprise. It was kinda hard to tell. These days Tora always seemed to have a surprised expression plastered on her face.

The Hokage chuckled and ran a hand over the cat's back before scratching its ears, "I don't see what's so hard to believe it. Tora here has been a wonderful companion for an old man like me."

In response Tora began to purr and pressed her head into the Hokage's fingers, clear enjoying the treatment. Though you could never tell by looking at her face.

Even now, so long after the… incident the poor cat never fully recovered from her ordeal.

Oh sure, she looked a healthier now that the bandages covering her bottom half was removed. And she could walk again, though not perfectly. Her hind legs seemed to have become permanently bowlegged, making her take wide exaggerated steps whenever she walked like a cowboy from one of those old westerns. And her tail remained permanently pointed up, straight and ridge as an iron bar. I have never once seen her tail lower from that position, not even when she slept.

But if you wanted any real proof that Tora never fully recovered from her ordeal, all you needed to do was look into the face of the tiny white and orange cat and stare at its unblinking eyes. Her soulful blue eye's were held permanently wide open, so round that they looked like golf balls that were about to roll out of her eye-sockets any second. That, along with the way her eyebrows were still raised up to her hairline, gave Tora a look of constant surprise.

No, really, every time I looked it at her it gave me the impression that someone had just shoved their fingers up her...well, you know. Even now as she purred in contentment under the Sarutobi's ministration her soulful blue eyes remained wide open, never blinking.

There were monks in the world who believed that the true enlightenment could only be reached through pain and suffering. That by suffering through the worst this world had to offer one can achieve an understanding to the true nature of world that escapes most men, allowing them to catch a peek of what laid in the next, supposedly a glimpse of some kind of nirvana. Some of the more superstitious Shinobi believed that was what happened to Tora.

They claimed that Tora, in her moment of suffering, had caught a glimpse of Nirvana. Which was was the reason why she never blinks anymore, because through her enlightened eyes the world she see around her is so blissfully beautiful that she cannot bring herself to look away and block the sight even for a moment, not even to blink.

Personally, I believed that there reason why she kept her eyes open was to make sure that no one tried to sneak up on her and shove their finger up her ass ever again. But that was just me.

Naruto glanced between the purring cat and the Hokage before she just shook her head in incomprehension and dropped the topic.

It had been almost four weeks since the end of our first disastrous D-rank mission, the now infamous Tora incident, and since then the tiny cat has become something of a common sight in the Hokage's office.

As expected, when we told the client of Tora's fate she took the news...rather poorly.

Madam Shinjimi, the Daimyo's wife and Tora's original owner, was an obese lady with a shrill voice and far too much makeup. She was also as stubborn and pig-head as they came, all too used to getting her way. So when the time came to deliver Tora to her and she found her precious cat in such a poor state she demanded to know what happened to it, ignoring all our attempts to convince her that she really, really, didn't want to know. Naturally she did not listen to our advice and so, as the team responsible, it fell on our shoulders to tell her what happened to her precious cat.

I swear, I felt the entire floor shake when the tub of lard fainted.

An hour or so later, a pale faced and much subdued Madam Shinjimi was seen being helped into her carriage that would take her back to the capital. Without her cat. It appeared that after our rather detailed explanation to the fate that befell her precious pet, she could no longer look directly at Tora without fainting.

Literally, every time she caught so much as a glimpse of said cat she would immediately turn a pale white and faint.

In the end, after repeatedly consoling the understandably distressed woman, it was decided that it would be best if she and Tora parted ways. And thus, Madam Shinjimi returned home leaving poor Tora behind. But for once luck was on Tora's side because she ended up finding a new home almost immediately.

Being the soft hearted man that he was, Sarutobi took pity on the poor creature and ended up adopting the cat as a pet. Now normally that would have been impossible. The very same reason why children were sent to retrieve Tora would have prevented the Hokage from adopting her; Tora was a Nekomata.

As a Nekomata, Tora could sense the true nature of an individual. In particular, she could sense any ill intent or corruption in them. She was so sensitive to it that Tora kept fleeing from Nobles because they were too corrupt for her to stand their presence for long. Now imagine how it must have felt like to live alongside Ninjas, professional assassins who constantly lied, manipulated, tortured and murdered people. Hell, Sarutobi himself played a part in the genocide of an entire Clan. In all honesty our presence should have sent her fleeing in terror the first chance she got.

However it quickly became apparently clear that Tora no longer gave a shit about our so called 'ill intent' anymore.

It wasn't surprising if you stopped to think of it. After surviving an unexpected anal virginity removal treatment via Kakashi, I doubt something as mundane as 'murdering back-stabbing Ninjas' could scare her anymore. Hell, I wasn't sure if she could even feel fear again after having been traumatized so badly.

No seriously, the thousand yard stare she kept giving everyone in room paralytically screamed 'you would not believe the shit I've seen'. It was a look you'd expect to see only in the broken eyes of veterans from the worst wars, not on the fluffy face of a little cat.

Even I couldn't muster much of a reaction from Tora anymore.

Once, just the sight of me caused her to become petrified with fear. N ow though she barely noticed me. All she would ever do whenever she caught sight of me was to give a once over, before snorting in dismissal and looking away, eyes still wide open as golf balls from the horrors she had lived through.

Only Kakashi seemed to be able draw out any kind of emotional reaction from her these days.

Now normally, that would have been the end of Tora's story. But as it quickly became obvious, there was absolutely nothing normal about this cat.

Somehow, and don't ask me how because even I didn't fully understand it, Tora ended up becoming something of a mascot to the Hokage.

Apparently every Ninja and Genin that ended up standing before the Hokage's desk over the past couple of weeks took note of the unusual feline sitting there, and soon rumors of the Hokage's new pet began to spread. And whether it was out of pity or maybe even respect for a fellow survivor, Tora's popularity among the ninja population soon skyrocketed. People even began selling merchandise of the cat as Tora turned into some kind of fad. Just last week I saw Hanabi cuddling up to a plush doll of Tora out of all things.

Either way, by the end of the month since her adoption, Tora had somehow ended up becoming the unofficial mascot to the Village of Konoha.

I swear, sometimes it felt as if this entire world was mad.

"Anyway," Sarutobi stopped scratching Tora and turned his attention back to us, "I do believe you're here for a reason."

Lending down, Sarutobi reached into an open drawer from his desk and pulled out a dark green and black coloured scroll before holding it out towards us. "Team 7, for your latest mission you are to-"

"No."

The refusal cut through the air of the office, leaving a stunned silence in its wake.

Sarutobi blinked once before he turned to give Naruto a perplexed look. "Excuse me?"

"I said no." My blonde friend repeated, firmly planting her feet shoulder width apart as she crossed her arms before her chest, a familiar stubborn glint in her eye as she gave the Hokage a glare. "I'm not going on another D-rank mission and you can't make me."

The old man chuckled at her reaction. "Now Naruto-"

"No."

"Naruto, you can't just-"

"No!" Naruto held her arms before her in an 'X' shape and made a sound that reminded me of game-show buzzer. "No way, no how. I don't care what you say to me Jiji, I'm not doing it anymore. I'm done, finished! I'm not going on another crappy D-rank mission even if it kills me."

The aging Hokage appeared to be more amused by my blonde teammate's adamant defiance to take the mission than anything. "Come now, Naruto." Sarutobi set the scroll on his desk and leaned back into his chair, eyes tinkling merrily as he looked on his surrogate granddaughter, an indulgent smile clear on his lips. "D-rank missions can't be that bad."

Naruto just crossed her arms and sent him a baleful look. "I delivered porn Jiji."

Sarutobi couldn't quite restrain a wince.

"Ah, I suppose you did." He relented after a moment with a reluctant nod before leveling Naruto with a hard stare. "But sometimes Naruto, being a Ninja means doing work you don't want to do. The life of a Shinobi is not always a glamorous one. While yes there maybe times that we are sent on dangerous or even exciting mission, there is just as much of a chance that you'll be forced to work jobs that you may find… distasteful. Even so it will be your duty as a Ninja of the Leaf to complete those mission. As a young Kunoichi, its best that you learn this lesson here and now rather than out in the field."

Despite the solemnity the words were delivered, Naruto appeared unconvinced as she crossed her arms and sent the Hokage a disappointed look. "To your home." she said, "I had to deliver porn to your home."

The Hokage had the good grace to blush at that. Yeah, I didn't think he completely thought things through when he assigned that particular mission to us.

Behind the Hokage, sunlight poured through the row of windows and filled the room, illuminating the office and granting us a breathtaking view of Konoha. Being one of the highest structures in the village meant that we could see almost everything from here. Something that Shikamaru, as usual, was all to happy to take advantage of.

From where he stood to my left, on the opposite side of Naruto from me, the lazy genuine was slouched over as he blankly gazed out the window, clearly unwilling to muster up the effort, let alone the interest, to get himself involved with the conversation. Instead the slouching boy was lost in some daydream as he stared at the clouds drifting by.

As for the 'responsible' leader of Team 7, he was leaning on a wall not too far behind us, flipping through the pages of his latest book while occasionally releasing a creepy giggle. Kakashi hadn't even glanced up as Naruto continued to reject the Hokage's offer of missions, too engrossed in his book to bother, most likely all to willing to leave it up to Sarutobi to deal with her.

While all this was happening, I remained quietly standing by Naruto's right side, forcing myself to remain still and not fidget least I bring undue attention to myself. It wasn't that I felt uncomfortable in the Hokage's presence, far from it. Due to my proximity to Naruto I had ended up spending a lot of time around Sarutobi, so much so that any nervousness I may have felt speaking to the leader of the village had long faded away. Besides, Sarutobi had such a grandfatherly air about him that I would have felt right at home in his presence even if I had been a green awe-struck Genin meeting him for the very first time.

So no, it wasn't Sarutobi that was bothering me, rather it was the lack of Danzo that had me so on edge.

A small part of me had expected him to be here, standing by the Hokage as his plans unfolded just as he wanted. In hindsight that was absurd. Danzo was never the type to act out in the open. He was the kind who stuck to the shadows so much that you can never know for sure if he had a hand in something or not.

What made it worse was that I knew that he could have been hiding in here with us and I would never know it. There was so many hidden panels and niches in the Hokage office that an entire squad of Ninja could hide and we'd never be the wiser. Actually, there probably was a squad of hidden Ninjas here with in us. The ever present yet never seen Anbu squad that guarded the Hokage day and night were no doubt hiding somewhere over our heads, but as they were always here they didn't count.

I itched to activate my Byakugan at the thought of Danzo being nearby, to open my sights to any hidden dangerous but I couldn't. Not here, not when I was in the Hokage's office standing before the man himself, not without a good reason. So left with no other option, I stood by Naruto's side and tried my best to keep my emotions off my face.

It was at times like this that I was truly gratefully for the apathetic mask that all Hyuuga's seem to instinctively know to wear. Had I been into any other clan, the blank face I wore might have been seen as a sign of nervousness, but as a Hyuuga, it was just considered part of our natural expression. And I shamelessly took advantage of that fact to help me hide my nerves without appearing out of character.

"-But Jiji, I want to do something more amazing. Not babysitter or delivering someone's porn. So find us something more incredible or else we're not doing it. And don't try and trick me Jiji," Naruto pointed an accusing finger at man. "I know my rights." A self assured smirk grew on her lips as she smugly crossed her arms in triumph. "You can't make us take a mission unless we want to. Hikaru said so, so it must be true."

Even as I fought the urge to face-palm, I couldn't quite keep the reluctant grin from made its way to my lips. Only Naruto would try to put my comments on the law – that of a mere Genin – above that of the Hokage himself.

After shooting a quick glance to the blonde, I turned to look at the Hokage to gauge his reaction, and it was clear that the old man must have felt the same way I did because he glanced my way, one of his eyebrow arched, and we shared a look of mutual amusement at the absurdity that was Naruto.

After a second Sarutobi shook his head and turned back to Naruto, hands steepled before him in an attempt to cover his smile. Not that it did any good, what with the way his eyes seemed to all but twinkle with amusement from under the brim of his hat.

"Is there nothing I can do to convince you take this mission Naruto?" He asked, nodding towards the mission scroll sitting on his desk, but Naruto refused to take it and shook her head adamantly. The old man gave a theatrical sigh as he pick up the scroll. "Very well then, if you insist on it that much I'll give you a C-rank mission instead."

"Jiji, I already said – wait what?" Naruto cut herself off in the middle of her tangent as she registered what he said.

A tiny quirk appeared on one corner of his lips, "I said you've won Naruto. Your team has already completed the minimum required D-ranks new Genin teams need to qualify for their first C-rank. I suppose if you feel so strongly about it then there is no harm in granting you a C-rank."

Going by the look of stunned disbelief that was plastered on Naruto's face, I don't think she actually believed she would get her way despite how stubbornly she fought. Slowly though, the reality began to sink in and her expression was replaced by a wide elated grin.

"YAHOO~~!" Leaping in a fit of joy, Naruto through one fist into the air before spinning to me. "You hear that Hikaru? We're getting a C-rank mission! A C-Rank! We're going to be doing real Ninja stuff, like rescuing a princess, or fighting an army or -"

"It is a shame though," despite the soft tone, Sarutobi's voice still managed to be heard over Naruto's chattering. He looked down at the green and black mission scroll held in his hands. "After all the trouble I went through of preparing you a B-rank mission, only for you to reject it."

I swear, you could hear a pin drop from how quite the room suddenly became.

Naruto, who had frozen in place mid-celebration, stiffly rotated her now pale white face towards the Hokage. "...Say what now?"

"And I was so certain you would have wanted it." Sarutobi carried on talking to himself, pretending not to notice her reaction as looked over the scroll. He let out what was clearly a fake sigh, "But I suppose there is I nothing I can do about it. As you had so adamantly pointed out to me, I cannot force you to take such a dangerous B-rank mission."

From the opposite side of Naruto, I saw Shikamaru stir. He was still in his slouch but his eyes we no longer focused on the clouds. It was a subtle thing, the way his eyes swirled onto the Hokage, but to anyone who knew him could tell he was paying attention now.

Naruto on the other hand looked liked she just found out that her favorite pet had died. "But...But...you didn't say anything about a B-rank."

"I was going to but you never let me finish." Sarutobi tried to reply nonchalantly, but as he caught sight of Naruto's devastated expression he had to lower the brim of his hat to hide his amusement. "Then again I cannot rightly blame you for rejecting to take the mission if you felt you were not up to it. Rather, I must commend you for it. Knowing your limits and refusing to take a mission that you felt was beyond you took a level of maturity I did not expect from you Naruto. Well done."

"Still," He admitted as he pulled open a drawer and began to lower the scroll into it. "It is a pity that after all the trouble I went to set it up for you, you'd reject it. I suppose I must look for another another more qualified Genin team to complete it instead-"

Naruto slammed her hand onto the Hokage's desk so hard it literally leapt off the ground.

"Give it to me." My blonde teammate spoke, voice devoid of any emotion. "Give it to me now."

Sarutobi paused to look up at Naruto with feigned surprise, completely disregarding the deadly look she was giving him. "But Naruto, I thought you didn't want it."

"Don't mess with me old man!" Naruto growled as she inched her way closer to the Hokage. And by that I didn't mean she walked around the desk, the girl was literally clawing her way over the desk on her hands and knees in an attempt to get to him. "Give me that damn scroll!"

The Hokage soon found himself gripped by the front of his robes by four and a half feet of enraged blonde. Despite being manhandled by a Genin – an act that would have been considered high treason in any other situation – Sarutobi just chuckled affectionately at the girl.

"I take it that you've changed your mind then." He tipped his hat back, "In that case allow me to ask you again. Team 7, will you accept the B-rank protection mission to the Land of Waves?"

"YES-YES-YES! WE'LL TAKE IT!"

The windows literally rattled in their frames, sending a flock of birds fleeing to the air from a nearby tree and caused what sounded like every dog in the village to howl in pain.

Years of experience from hanging around Naruto gave me a rough idea of what to expect from blonde when she heard the offer, so before she had a chance to so much as open her mouth, let alone reply, I had both my hands firmly pressed against my ears.

And if the way Shikamaru winced in pain and clutched his ears was any indication, it was a good thing that I did. My fellow teammate shot Naruto a half-hearted glare before he looked away, muttering something under his breath about loud women and hearing loss.

Had it been any other time Shikamaru would have found himself receiving a cuff to the back of the head from Naruto for the comment, but our resident blonde either didn't hear him or was too excited to care from where she was standing before the Hokage.

"Naruto, calm down." The aging Hokage gave his surrogate granddaughter an indulgent smile, "I know you're excited but you can't just accept a mission without thinking on it."

"What is there to consider?" Naruto shot back, grinning way to widely at the news, all her previous anger gone like mist under the morning light. "It's a B-rank missions, Jiji, a B-rank! Of course we'll accept. Why wouldn't we?"

"Because this is a B-rank mission Naruto. I don't need to tell that it will be nothing like you've ever done before. The danger is real and it will not be you alone who would be put at risk. Therefore the decision is not yours alone to make," Sarutobi removed his pipe from his lips and pointed the stem at the rest of us, "It is your entire team's. As such, I will not approve this mission unless every member of Team 7 agree to take it."

Immediately Naruto released the Hokage to leap of the desk before turning to face me, wearing the the most pleading, puppy eyed look she had. Her eyes actually seemed to grow a couple of inches in size as she looked up to me, teardrops reflect off the sunlight glistening in her eyes.

Naturally, I knew she faking. And just as naturally, I folded.

"Fine," I caved, any lingering doubts I had about involving myself with Danzo disappearing in the face of eagerness. I never could deny her anything she really wanted. "Well take the mission."

"Alright!" Naruto cheered, proving my suspicion correct as her pitiful expression was immediately replaced with excitement. "We're going on our first B-rank!

"Wait! I object!" Shikamaru interjected, raising his hand in the air as he did so. "I don't remember agreeing to-"

Without even bothering to look his way, Naruto raised up her foot off the ground and stomped down.

Hard.

A tremor ran though the entire room, sending all the furniture shaking. When it finally stopped a couple of seconds later, Shikamaru slowly lowered his sights and glanced downwards, just in time to see Naruto removed her foot off the ground, revealing a rather detailed impression of the soles of her shoes imprinted deep into the stone floor.

Looking down at the crater – which was only millimeter away from hitting his toes – Shikamaru swallowed loudly and, very wisely, lowered his hand. "...I withdraw my objection."

"Excellent." The Hokage said, easily ignoring the blatant strong arming of our teammate. I suppose he had his share of experience with dealing with unmotivated Naras. "Then seeing that you are all in agreement, I hereby assign Team 7 to the mission."

At this point Kakashi finally glanced up from his book. "Wait, doesn't anyone want my opinion?"

"No." Naruto, Shikamaru, me, and even the Hokage replied as one, all of us giving the grey haired man a deadpanned look. Hell, I think even Tora glared at him. No matter what, we all knew that we'd be better off without asking him as Kakashi's input would just make things worse.

Seeing this, Kakashi just shrugged and returned to his book.

"Now Team 7," The Hokage turned to address the rest of us, "your assignment will be to escort the client, a bridge builder by the name of Tazuna, to the Land of Waves-"

The Hokage spent the next several minutes going over the details of the mission with us, and I wasn't too surprise to discover how different it was from the show. After everything I had went through so far, I would have been astonished to find that the show had gotten it entirely correct than the other way round.

On the surface, it wasn't too different from what I remember but the more I listened, the more apparent it became that for all the superficial similarities this was an entirely different ball game.

For one thing Konoha was very much aware of Gatō's involvement in the Waves, along his desire to prevent the bridge from being completed at any cost. Another difference was the overall objective of the mission. Rather than simply guarding Tazuna, our primarily objective was to secure a trade route between the Land of Fire and the Land of Waves. And with Gatō choke hold on the ports, the only way that objective could be completed was via the construction of the bridge that Tazuna had been working on.

I paid rapt attention to all of this, mentally noting all the differences and filing them away so that I can better scrutinize over the changes later in private.

"-you are to meet you client at the main gates tomorrow morning at 7 am sharp." After finally providing with all the basic information he felt we would need, Sarutobi began to wrap up the briefing and held out the mission scroll towards our Sensei, who had been engrossed with his reading the entire time. "All the necessary details for the mission have already been written in the scroll."

Snapping his book shut, Kakashi pushed himself off the wall and approaching the waiting Hokage at a lethargic pace. Slipping his book into his side pouch, he reached out to the offered scroll with his other hand-

*BANG*

- Tora sat up straight, startling all of us as she slammed her ass onto the desk she had been lounging on so hard that it rattled. Kakashi paused for a moment to glance at the cat, only to find her blankly staring back at him with wide open eyes. After a second our Sensei shrugged and took the scroll from the Hokage's outstretch hand, easily ignoring Tora's behavior.

It wasn't as if this was the first time Tora behaved this way around Kakashi, and I doubted it would be the last.

It seemed that Kakashi was the only person who still seemed able scare Tora anymore, as whenever he grew too close to her, she would immediately press her ass against a solid object. Not that I could blame her. If I had gone through what that poor cat had, then you'd bet your last dollar that I would make sure I had something solid between my anus and Kakashi's fingers whenever he was around.

…What the hell is wrong with my life that I can think of that sentence and be completely serious?


Despite the sunlight pouring through the window, none of it seemed to touch the room. The warmth of the morning rays failed to reach past the glass panels, its light unable to diffuse the gloom that gripped the place, rather it only seemed to deepened them as the shadows cast by the light grew darker.

Beneath the shadows of his hat cold eyes peered out, the warmth they held just seconds ago missing as they locked onto the door that the three children and a young man had walked through.

It was as if with their departure the grandfatherly old man that they had talked to had departed with them, and now what sat it his place was something entirely different. A creature infinity more jaded and ever so very weary.

Nothing remained of the man that a little girl called Jiji.

Here sat the Third Hokage, the Sandaime, the God among killers.

And it was there, in that quite empty room, that the Sandaime asked a question.

"Are you sure of this?"

There should have been no one left to answer.

Kakashi had long gone, taking his charges with him, and even his ever present Anbu guards had left their post at a signal from the Hokage. There was no one left in the room but he.

Someone answered anyway.

"Of course."

It was like the slow ticking of clock, the rhythmic tapping of his cane that herald his arrival, the only noise from the otherwise silent intruder, leaving no question to his identity. With silent steps he drifted from the shadows, appearing in the room like a specter, bandaged arm cradled in his robes.

"For this, we cannot send anybody else." Danzo hobbled over to the seated Kage, still playing the role of the cripple even now in the privacy of this office, away from prying eyes.

"There are others." The Sandaime contradicted, voice flat, not so much cold as sterile, "Perhaps not as suited or capable but-"

"-But nothing." Danzo lowered himself into one of the vacant seats before the Hokage's desk, the tip of his cane cradled in both his hands. "Momochi Zabuza may not be the most powerful Shinobi the Mist has ever produce but he comes close. As an assassin he is nearly paralleled. In the land of waves, surrounded on all sides by his element, in a terrain he has grow familiar with over, any team we send will either be ripped apart or incur such losses that we can ill afford. If we desire any chance of flushing him out without suffering heavy causalities we need to send someone capable enough to both track and bring him down in a one-on-one confrontation. The only individual that suits our needs and is not currently involved in a crucial mission is Hatake Kakashi"

"I fear," Danzo carried on after a moments pause, "that our failure to anticipate the recent developments at the Waves have left us ill positioned to react to the situation. We have little other choice."

"What of your precious Root?" Hiruzen demanded, still not taking his eyes off the door. "Can they not take care of this?"

"No. I have none stationed in the Wave at the present. At least none that can hope to fight the likes of Zabuza and come out alive. The majority of my operatives are primarily infiltration specialists, Hiruzen, you know this. They were never meant to engage in open combat and are ill equipped to handle someone of Zabuza's caliber. The few that are, are currently stationed elsewhere, and I can't risk recalling them from their current assignments without compromising both them and their missions."

The words Danzo spoke were not something Hiruzen hadn't heard before. He had been told the same thing by the very same man himself a little more than a week ago, when the situation was first brought to his attention. But if Danzo felt any disgruntlement at being forced to recite the information for a second time he showed no signs of it, his single working eye continued to observe his Hokage's stone faced expression as he spoke, who eyes had remained locked onto the door.

When he finally finished speaking a silence drifted between the two. Danzo was content to wait for the other to break the silence first, while Hiruzen appeared to not even have noticed Danzo had finished speaking.

At long last, what felt like a small eternity later, the Sandaime pulled his eyes away from the door and set them upon his oldest friend. "…And there was no one else we could have sent?" Though he already knew the answer, Hiruzen felt the need to ask anyway.

"And pray tell, who?" Danzo questioned plainly, "Who else is there? Jiraiya perhaps? Or maybe you'd like to call back Tsunade once again? The first is missing, again I might add, while the other is more likely to spit on our faces than agree to help. No old friend, there is no one else available to us."

"There is Tenzo." Though Sarutobi looked doubtful at his own suggestion. "Though I suppose we can't afford risk exposing his abilities so early."

"No, we cannot." Danzo agreed. "Even if we were willing to, I'm not confident enough in his abilities to accomplish this mission. Tenzo, powerful he may be, but the Demon of the Mist has survived far worse in the past. We need someone to guarantee success without suffering loses, which is what makes Hatake so suited for the task. Both S-rank Ninjas and those who can fight them are rare even in the best if times, and these days certainly aren't. Hatake is one of the very few we have left, he is too valuable an asset to keep off the field for long. Already my spies tell me that his absence has been noticed, and if he stays away for too long I fear that others may see it as a sign of weakness."

The illusion of Konoha's power, something that the two of them had spent almost every day of the last twelve years trying to maintain. Since the night the nine-tailed fox broke free from its prison.

It was impossible to completely explain the scale of the devastation Konoha had suffered that day. It was the single biggest disaster the Leaf had ever suffered and even today, over a decade later, it has yet to recover from its wounds.

To put it plainly, Konoha barely managed to survive as a nation afterward. The demon fox had killed so many of their numbers that the Leaf simply did not have the numbers to sustain itself, not when they have yet to recuperate the loses suffered during the war. Had any of the other Villages ever learned the true extent of the damaged they had suffered, Konoha may very well have ceased to exist.

The only reason they managed to survive for so long was because the other Villages were plagued with their own set of problems. They too had come out of same war Konoha had, suffering even bigger loses than the Leaf had, and that was not their only worry.

The Mist were embroiled in a civil war, and were far too busy killing each to take notice of their old enemy's weakness. The Sand were not only allies to the Leaf but they also suffered from their own internal issues. A scarcity of fertile land meant they lacked the resources to sustain a large population, keeping their numbers the smallest out of all the Great Villages. Coupled with deteriorating relationship with their Daimyo, along with troubles controlling their own tailed-beast, meant they could ill afford to take advantage of the weakness of others.

The Stone suffered the biggest losses out of all the villages during the war, and from the Leaf no less. And while eager to take revenge, they were also skittish, the lesson taught to them by the hands of the Yondaime the last time they pointed their blades at the Leaf were not so easily forgotten. So while they may have wanted vengeance, there were not willing to commit themselves to another war against the Leaf unless their victory was certain.

Out of the Five Great Hidden Village, it was the Cloud that presented the greats risk to Konoha. They, out of all the Hidden Villages, were the only ones in the right position to take complete advantage of the Leaf's weakened state, and they almost had. It was only thanks to the back breaking effort from the survivors of the Kyuubi's attack that managed to stop them from trying.

In face of the devastation they suffered, the Shinobi of Konoha refused to show any weakness. Despite the steep drop in the numbers, the Village continued to maintain the status quo. After but a single day to recover, Konoha had resumed accepting mission, taking ever assignment offered to them by clients, sustaining the same level of activity they had before the attack. And though it took every Shinobi and Kunoichi left with four working limbs – sometimes not even that – working double shifts to make it work, they managed to pull it off.

All so that they may show the world that though Konoha bleeds, it was still strong.

And it had worked.

The almost instantaneous recover after the attack had cast doubt on the extent of the damage Konoha had sustained, making those willing to take advantage of their time of weakness to hesitate and falter. And though there were some a few probing attempts from other villages, such as the near disastrous Hyuuga Incident by Kumo, Konoha had managed to maintain a strong enough presence of strength that none were willing to risk a full out war with them.

And now, after so many years, Konoha is almost restored to its former glory.

They were close, oh so very close. Just a little more time and children born after the Kyuubi attack will become Shinobi in their own right, ready and able to take the place of those who had fallen that day. But there were not quite there yet. They needed more time, just a little more and the illusion of strength that they had tried so hard to maintain will become a reality. But till then, the old guard had to maintain their vigil until the new generation were ready to take their place by their side.

"And the children, what of them?" Hiruzen asked, getting to the heart of his distress. "Leave them behind, there is no need to involve them in this."

"I disagree." The one-eyed man said in reply. "There is every reason to involve them. The experience will be good for them if nothing else."

"Not if Zabuza ends up killing them it won't!"

"Hatake won't let him." Danzo stated assuredly, easily disregarded the killing intent being leveled his way with a practiced ease. "Zabuza will be too busy fending him off to concern himself with others."

"You know Zabuza isn't alone Danzo." Hiruzen pointed out. "What of them? Kakashi can't be everywhere and do everything while fighting Zabuza at the same time. He will not be able to protect the rest of his team while he fights."

"Other than Zabuza, the rest won't pose any real threat." Danzo waved off the concern. "They're riffraff. Nothing more than a thugs and Rounin." A tiny sneer actually appeared on Danzo's lips, as if merely speaking the word left a bad taste on his tongue. "Gato is far too fond of his money to willingly part with more of it than he has to. The only people he has worth noting at the two that Zabuza has brought with him, and the Demon Brothers are barely C-rank Ninjas. If even that. Against a Jinchuuriki that can multiply herself and survive against any injury shot of decapitation, an up-and-coming prodigy with eyes that can see danger coming from miles away matched with the pragmatism to run away when needed, and then there is Shikaku's boy, who appears to have inherited both his father's intelligence along with inclination to avoid any danger or hardships."

"I have absolute confidence in their abilities to keep themselves alive." Danzo actually sounded as if meant it. "They may lack the skills to actually aid Hatake in the mission, but they needn't have to. Hatake can handle the mission alone. The children need not do anything other than survive."

"Why, Danzo? Why do you want to see them on a battlefield so strongly."

"So that they may have their eyes opened." The leader of Root replied. "We both know that all the training we put them through in the Academy is meaningless in the moment they set foot on a battlefield. For all the decades we spent developing training techniques, we have yet to discover a way to prepare someone for their first taste of battle. So many promising students walk out of the Academy doors only to die by a kunai in the hands of some drunken bandit because they ended up freezing when they should have acted. In the end, it simple meant they lacked what it took to survive as a Shinobi. The only way to find out for sure if they have what it takes is to throw them in the fire, and see if they manage to walk back out. You know this is true."

"But not this soon." A hint of pleading could be heard in the old man's voice. "They are still children Danzo, only twelve, don't send them into something like this."

Instead of answering right away, Danzo stared at his Kage, his one eye seemingly able to something that no one else could. After a time, in an almost gentle tone of voice, he spoke. "Do you recall what happened that last time you trained children, Hiruzen?"

The reminder brought a grimace to the Hokage's face, forcing him to look away, his already grim expression darkening even further.

That has always been a sticking point between the two.

Once, a long time ago, Sarutobi Hiruzen had been given three bright pupils to train. The best of their generation, each showing more potential than almost any other student to have come out of the Academy since its founding. The three, while different, were all brilliant in their own way. Orochimaru, a well behaved obedient child who excelled in almost everything he tried his hand in and soaked up knowledge like a sponge. Tsunade, a Senju, with a control over Chakra that was as near damn perfect that either of them had ever seen, even as a child, matched with a passion and intelligence that left no doubts she would achieve great things. And finally was Jiraiya, who though lagged far behind the other two academically and in the other more traditional fields of the Shinobi arts, had shown clear signs of hidden genius and untapped potential in Fuinjutsu.

All who looked upon the three knew they would one day become great, if only there were given the chance.

And they were.

The children were given to the care of the Sandaime, the greatest living Ninja that Konoha could call its own, and it was under his guidance they bloomed, his teachings bring out the greatest locked inside of them. The potential that they shared was carefully grown and cultivated into genuine talent, producing something that had never seen before or since.

A team comprised entirely of S-rank ninjas.

Once Hiruzen would have taken pride in that knowledge. That the three children he had met so long ago, who he had come to think of as his own children, had grown so strong and achieved so much. But now the bitter reminder left him feeling empty, none of old pride anywhere to be found.

What should have been his greatest achievement had instead become his greatest failure.

And his greatest living shame.

He been given the best of a generation to be trained under him, so they may learn all the skills and strength he possessed. And he had, he succeeded in teaching them be strong. In body at least.

It was forging their character where he had failed.

One had abandoned her home, leaving all her comrades behind to a live of decadency, gambling away the last of her family's fortune and drinking her life away. The other could be found gallivanting all around the world, never remaining in one place for too long before disappearing to somewhere else, rarely ever returning to her home village, and now more famed for her perversion and skills as a smut writer than her abilities as a Ninja.

As for the last?

The worst traitor the Leaf had ever seen since Madara. An inhuman abomination as likely to kill a child as he would an ant.

That was the fate of the three children given to him.

The minds of all three were broken. While the war could be partially blamed for it, Hiruzen could not find it in himself to agree. He was not so unaware of his shortcomings to put the blame entirely on others. He was the responsible for them, it was he who raised them, and for all three to become like this. Who could he blame but himself?

The aged Hokage shut his eyes, the only outward sign of the now familiar ache he felt fill his chest. He knew had always been a failure as a father. His son never failed to remind him. Perhaps that is why when he tried to be a teacher, he failed at that too.

He refused to take any other students after. No matter how many times he had been asked, he denied any request to start a new team. He refused to subject any more children to his failures.

He had also been reluctant to allow Danzo any students for much the same reason. While he would not stop him from finding orphans and other unfortunates to train, he refused to subject any child from his village to his training. As much as he trusted his old friend to do what was needed, he feared he would go too far in his passion to fulfill his duty. So while he allowed him to take a hand in training his Anbu, he kept him far away from the truly innocent children. But like most things the times had forced his hand, and he had been forced to grant his old friend a single student from the his village.

The results has spoke for themselves.

From the three Hiruzen had been given, one a traitor, one a drunkard that had abandoned her village and the last is almost never seen, doing whatever catches her fancy.

While the one child he had given to Danzo was Uchiha Itachi.

The results were clear.

Hiruzen had tried and found himself wanting as a teacher. Though he held no ill will to his old friend, it pained him that he had proved to be such inadequate a teacher that Danzo of all people had proven to be a far superior.

Sometimes he felt as if the Heavens were laughing at him.

"Did you not promise me a free hand to mold these three?" Danzo asked rhetorically, not even bothering to wait for an answer before he carried on. "Then stand aside and let me do my job."

"I gave them to you to train them, not kill them." Hiruzen replied, heat managing to seep into his words, the first sign of emotions leaking into his voice from his otherwise sterile tone. "If I allow you proceed, they may die."

"They may," Danzo allowed, nodding. "But that is a risk we all share. No one who bares the name of 'Shinobi' can expect to do do so without putting lives at risk. The only difference with these children is that they experience this truth earlier than most – at least from the current generation. We were younger than even them when we first experienced battle. Or have you forgotten?"

"No Danzo. I have not."

"And in exchange for the danger they will experience, I will make them strong."

"And what if you don't? What if this plan of yours ends failing you in the worse way possible and they end up losing their lives. What then?"

"Then we do what we have always done, we move on and begin anew with the next group. The weak fall and the strong survive, that is the reality of the war we find ourselves in."

"We are not at war, Danzo."

"Tell that to the troops that keep dying every day on the field." Danzo turned to look over Hiruzen's shoulder, at the sight of the sprawling village of Konoha. "To the people living within the walls of the Village we have enjoyed a decade of peace, but to us who have to protect their peace, our war has never ended. In shadows the battle between the Hidden Villages continues to wage, unseen by all who walk in the light. As it should be."

Silence regained between the two for a moment as Danzo took the chance to look over the village he has sold his soul to protect, taking in its beauty.

"You know we have no other choice Hiruzen." As Danzo turned his sights back to his Hokage, he wore a look on his face that might have been mistaken for concern had it belonged to anyone else. "Too many mistakes have been made, we cannot afford to take our time any longer. You are dying."

Hiruzen quietly chortled, amused despite himself. "I'm hardly dying."

"But you are." Danzo denied. "As a Hokage you are most certainly dying. Slowly, every day, little by little you are dying. Each passing days see you grow weaker, your limbs more frail, your legs no longer seem to move as fast, your hands not as certain as they once used to be, your eyesight not as clear, and every morning finds you more weary than the last."

Danzo leveled his gaze to his oldest, and perhaps only, friend. "You are dying old friend. We are running out of time, we have already suffered too many failures already as it is. We cannot afford to take our time any longer."

Hiruzen sat silent for a time, his gaze once again returning to the door. Danzo said nothing, content wait and let his old friend think. At last the aging Hokage sighed, "But this?" He asked, looking every bit of his six and a half decades, "You may end up breaking them old friend. They're still only children."

"What else would you have me do?" Danzo asked, holding his hands open. "Coddle them? Have them trained within the safety these walls on training mats with blunted weapons, never exposing them to any real danger, only to watch their potential wither away? Is that what you would have me do?

"Raised in absolute peace can kill a child's growth just as much as kunai to their throat could. Kindness may make a child a strong but too much of it can stunt them just as easily as cruelty could, perhaps even more. They need to be exposed to hardship of the world hidden beyond these wall if we ever want them to meet our expectations. You know I speak the truth, the greatest among us have all had one thing in common. We all knew war as children."

"...Perhaps." The Hokage relented. "But doesn't mean I have to like it."

Danzo stared at his old friend for a long time, seeing something there he did not expect to find. "Are you sure that not letting your sentiments for the child cloud your judgment, old friend."

"No." The Sandaime shook his head. "No." He repeated. "I knew that Naruto's fate would be this the moment Minato sealed the Kyuubi in her. As much as I wished it to be otherwise, there is nothing I can do to change it."

"It was not the Jinchuuriki I was speaking of."

Hiruzen stiffened, his expression turning frigidly cold. "...Exactly what is it you are implying, Danzo?"

The tone was spoken in warning, like a drawn knife.

"The resemblance in uncanny, I must admit." Danzo admit, carried on as if not noticing the threat that hung between them. "Not so much in their features perhaps, in that regard they are certainly different, but in everything else?" He raised one shoulder in a half-shrug, "I can not blame if you see him in the boy when the similarities are clear for all to see."

Hiruzen stared at Danzo stifling, back straight, eyes smoldering.

Them, like the puffed out flame of a candle, all the rage in him disappeared, leaving him feeling weak, tired and so very old.

"...I admit, I keep seeing Orochimaru in him. When he was still…" Hiruzen grimaced in pain. Even after all these year, despite becoming to familiar with the sensation the sting of his betrayal still burned as freshly as the day he had found his student in those sewers.

To realised what the boy he had come to love as a son had become.

Hiruzen shook his head, clearing his mind from that particular train of thought. "It is hard not to see him sometime when I look at him. Not when there is so much of the good I used to see in the boy."

The bad too, went unspoken.

Shutting his eyes Hiruzen could still see him, as clearly as if had stood before him – not the man he had become but the boy he had once loved. And every time he looked at the young Hyuuga that had latched onto his surrogate daughter, he could not help but see him in the boy.

The fates were cruel, to have a reminder of his greatest failure dangled in front of his face.

They were so very much a like. At times it was surreal looking at him, the boy could have passed for the brother of his old student were it not their eyes and the tone of their skin.

Their prodigal talent, the way they spoke, the unnatural maturity that they held themselves with – even among the children of Shinobi -, their fascination with chakra, their cunning, the unsettling air they unconsciously gave out that would have set them apart from their peer even if their talents had not. Even the way the styled their hairs were not so dissimilar.

Then there his adoration for his family – his mother and sister in particular – that reminded him of how Orochimaru would cling to his parents. A mama's boy, that was what Tsunade used to call him. And she would have been right too, were it not for the fact that he clung to his father just as fiercely.

For better or for worse, Orochimaru had always been a pure child. He threw himself fully into anything he did, he would either love something completely or nor at all. No half measureless, he would obsess or disregard, no middle ground.

Then the day came when he stood before his parent's grave, and was faced with death, the inevitability of it all, it terrified him, and that purity was twisted into something else.

What is this?

Ohh! That's the skin of a white snake, must have been hard to find.

I've never seen something like this.

Haha, to be honest same with me. That's something very rare you don't get to see often.

...Why is it white?

Hmm...no one really knows. No one even thinks about that. For a long time now, the white snake has been a symbolized the image of good fortune and rebirth.

Good fortune and rebirth…

The fact that you found it here at this grave might be some sign. Maybe your parents have been reincarnated somewhere...so that someday...they may meet a grown up you.

...When will that be?

...That I don't know.

'Perhaps,' Hiruzen thought to himself the thousandth time, 'if he hadn't said that to him he would not have became what he is today.'

How would he have known the consequence of his actions. He had been trying to comfort a grieving child. If he only knew how his words would end up spawning a monster, he would have held his tongue.

And now, a second child appeared before him. What is a chance for him to fix past mistakes or a warning that history would repeat itself?

Hiruzen glanced at the cat sitting on his desk, who was staring blankly at the wall, ignoring their presence. It did not slip his mind how this tiny cat had reacted to the boy's presence. While the Kyuubi may have been sealed and its presence muted, for a Nekomata to react so badly to a child of only twelve was unnatural. It cemented to him like nothing else could have that he had not merely imagined the similarities between the two, and that the boy may hold more in common with his old student than just the obvious.

Were it not for the clear attachment the boy held for Naruto, he may have been more concerned. It didn't take a genius to see the incredible level of genuine affection the pair shared for each other, it was as clear as the sun in the sky for anyone who bothered to look. And he had been watching the pair for over six years now. He had no doubt in his mind that either one of them would rather cut their own hand off than harm the other.

It was for that reason above any other that had Hiruzen convinced that Hikaru was not a danger to the Leaf. So long as he had Naruto to keep him anchored, along with his family, he doubted he would ever have need to fear that Hikaru would take a similar path to that of his old student.

Besides, Konoha had more than one mentally unstable Shinobi who remained loyal. Danzo aside, anyone who met Maito Gai could attest to that.

But even that knowledge couldn't completely erase his fears. He knew all too well how cruel the world can be.

What would happen if one day, Hikaru returned to the village only to discover he had lost his family to an attack?

What would happen if he awoke up one day to find that Naruto had fallen in battle?

Would Hiruzen find him standing before a grave, like he had once before, consoling another grieving child? And this time, would a white snake happen to shed its skin on her grave?

No matter how unlikely it was to happen, Hiruzen could never allow that come to pass. Konoha had already spawned one abomination under his watch, he will not allow it to create a second. It may have been that very reason above any other why Hiruzen had allowed himself to be persuaded by Danzo and grant him his request to take over the boy's training. If there was anyone who knew how to tame a monster, it was him.

Clearly, Hiruzen could not trust himself to handle it. Not after the last time.

"But his resemblance to my old student is not why we are here." Hiruzen said, returning to the topic at hand with a shake of his head. Raising his eyes to his Danzo, who remained seated across, looking as unmoving as a bolder and just as unfeeling, Hiruzen felt the winds were taken out of sail

"Very well," Releasing a tired sigh the Hokage gave his reluctant consent to his oldest friend, sinking back into his chair. "I will leave this matter up to you discretion."

Danzo nodded solemnly. "Thank you."

And like that, the tense atmosphere quickly began to dispel.

Picking up his pipe from where he had abandoned on his desk, Hiruzen's well practiced fingers swiftly pushed a pinch of tobacco into it before lighting with a flick of his fingers and a bit of elemental manipulation. Raising the lit pipe to his lips, he took a long drag before puffing out, letting smoke drift around him in a comfortable haze. Danzo on the other hand just remained seated, cane held in his hands, content to remain where he was.

The two friend fell into an easy silence. For all the unpleasant topics that passed between them over the years, the two trusted each other explicable, enough to relax in the other's presence. How could they not after all they've been through? They have fought by the other's side too many times, trusted one another with too many secrets not to feel comfortable in the others company.

For a moment there they sat, two friends, both old, one bathed in the morning light shinning through the window behind him, the other, seated across from him, hidden in the shadow cast by the former.

Just as they have always been.

"If you'll excuse me," after a long time Danzo finally began to stir. Pushing himself up with the use of his cane, he gave his Hokage a causal bow, "I still have some final preparations to finish before Hatake leaves."

With a nod of dismissal from his old friend, Danzo turned around and began to hobble towards the door, the rhythmic tapping of his cane following all the way there. His hand had already gripped the door's handle by the time the voice reached him.

"Danzo." Pausing, Danzo turned to look over his shoulder at Hiruzen, who was leaning back in his chair, eye looking upwards staring at the drifting smoke, pipe in hand. "What if they die?"

"Then," He stated calmly, as if he was speaking of the whether than the lives of children, "we will have learned that they never had what it took to meet our exceptions. If that proves to be the case then it would be better to learn of this now, than waste any more time and effort training a worthless investment. Live or die, either way," he turned back to the door and pulled open, "we would have gained something of value from this."

And with that, Danzo, the Shadow of the Hokage, stepped out of the office.

Now alone, Hiruzen remained seated in his chair, staring up at the ceiling with a vacant expression. He would have liked to remain there for the remainder of the day, to dwell in his own thoughts, but unfortunately that will not come to pass. Even with everything that was happening with Team 7, he still had other problems that required his attention. There was never any rest for either the wicked or a Kage.

So with another tired sigh, the weary old Hokage straightened up in his chair and went back to work. But before he could turn his attention to paperwork piled on his desk, he felt something nudge his arm. Looking downward, he spotted Tora bumping her head against his arm, either trying to provide comfort or simply demanding attention. He never could quite tell with cats.

Nevertheless, grateful for the distraction she provided he chuckled and gently reached out to scratch behind one of Tora's ears, earning a delighted purr from the unblinking cat.

"Do you ever feel like you've been shafted?" He asked his feline companion, his thoughts lingering on his recent encounter with Danzo.

The cat seemed to immediately still under his fingers, freezing in place so completely it almost was as if someone had hit the pause button. Slowly, Tora swirled its and turned its wide open eyes to stare up at the Hokage with a deadpan look.

"Oh, right." Sarutobi grimaced, "Sorry."


*Chapter End*

Author's Notes:

That's it for this chapter.

I'm honestly not happy with how it turned, particularity the last third, but I've been away for far too long and I know if I tried to change anything I would have kept writing and rewriting scenes for another month, which is not worth it. I'm sure that now I started posting gain, my motivation to write will be rekindled and I'll begin churning out chapters again in a more acceptable rate.

Anyway I hope you enjoyed the chapter. Especially Tora. Poor kitty. Not to mention Ino. Can the pair ever get a break?

Oh, and a show of hands. How many of you want a Tora Plushy?

Next chapter, we'll see that to start the journey to Waves and discover how different it is from Cannon and what I have planned for Hikaru. Be warned by the end of the next chapter, the plot twists will begin again. I have a lot planned, so be prepared.

Be sure to leave a review on your away our, and thanks for reading.