Konoha

Hiruzen glanced over the team that returned home to him, horribly battered and dead-eyed. It was supposed to be an easy one, too. How had dealing with a few pickpockets gone so badly wrong? Well, obviously, he knew why; they had just given him the report, after all…it was more of a rhetorical complaint to the random number gods.

"You don't know how relieved I am that you came home alive – "

"Actually, I do," Kakashi said shortly.

Not a good mood, then. The Sandaime made a mental note to have Kakashi watched. Things rarely ended well when he got into one of his slumps. There had been a rock – always bad news, rocks – and no one was quite sure where it came from. The easiest solution had been to blame one of Orochimaru's minions; it was quite plausible, after all, that many of them knew earth jutsu and the one responsible for the earthquake had been killed in the crossfire.

"What are you planning to do about it?" Ino cut in. Straight to the point, this one.

The Sandaime wasn't quite sure himself. This wasn't the first case of battle frenzy in the world, not by a long shot, and most of them had been for worse reasons than concern for one's friends. Then again, Naruto Uzumaki wasn't most people, and while any one random berserker wouldn't cause too many problems in the aftermath, an out-of-control jinchuuriki could kill hundreds of enemies and allies alike in a single moment. If word of this got out, anyone could use this event as an excuse, that Naruto was too unstable and dangerous to be part of the regular forces…

"It wasn't the Kyuubi," Naruto whispered.

"I'm sorry?"

"I lost control of my emotions, but I had full control of my power. I take responsibility for my actions. I attribute it to my inexperience in tactical planning. If we are ever in a situation outside of mission parameters again, I will do my best to make more efficient choices," Naruto explained blandly. "This won't happen again."

"I'd like to mention that while all those other guys got burnt to a crisp, I got away with minor burns even though I was standing within the same radius. That means even in his haze, he was still aware enough to keep his allies in mind, subconsciously or not," Yamato added. "And if you think about it, that's some pretty impressive control right there, being able to kill someone within ten meters without hurting a teammate standing within five."

Hiruzen blinked. Well, that was one way of getting around it.

"Right. Here's what we're going to do. Since Yamato was the only one who actually witnessed this with his own eyes, we are going to say that Naruto overjudged the powers of his opponents because he mistakenly believed Orochimaru was nearby. However, he gained his first experience in successfully controlling his bijuu powers outside of a training setting as a result."

Naruto blinked at him. "Old man – "

"Meanwhile, I am granting Team 7 permission for one month of training leave."

"Probation, you mean."

Naruto's getting too smart. "On paper, it is training leave which you yourself requested, as well as time for your injured teammates to heal themselves properly. It is a common enough occurrence during peacetime. Respectable shinobi take breaks to teach themselves new jutsu all the time. It is a mere coincidence that the jutsu you have set your heart on requires a great deal of training in control."

Naruto blinked again. Then, he swallowed. "Yes, sir."

"I trust nothing will leave this room?"

Kakashi narrowed his eyes. "If it does, you can bet your stupid hat it wasn't one of us."


Training Ground Three

"By the way – fair warning, before you disappoint yourself – the first dog you summon won't come out completely sentient and full-grown like Pakkun or Bull. It will take a while before you get anything other than a puppy."

"It's fine. I like puppies," Naruto answered.

"I take it you're happy with this choice of animal?" Kakashi-sensei asked.

Happy? Naruto was beside himself. "Yeah – it's awesome."

"That's a relief, because Naruto, you're the only member of this team with enough chakra and a good enough tracking ability to work with my ninken. Initially, we were planning on further developing your elemental combination abilities in addition to your training with Jiraiya, but I thought it would be better if you got a break."

Naruto nodded. "So how does this work?"

"I'll show you how to set up and sign the contracts later; you can start practicing your summoning then. But first, we have to figure out what to do with you two," Kakashi-sensei said, looking at Shikamaru and Ino. "Shikamaru – due to your injuries, you're exempt from any taxing physical activity for the next few weeks. I've found a different use of your time instead. Now that we've figured out that you can use your own shadows as a substitute for fuinjutsu ink, it would be foolish to let such a powerful and unique tool go to waste."

Shikamaru sat up excitedly. "I'm learning sealing?"

Kakashi-sensei's eye crinkled, which Naruto immediately took to mean uh-oh.

"Yes, you are. It's a very difficult field, which is why I'm going to give it to you – because I know, if anyone is intelligent enough to succeed at it, it's you. As such, here is your homework for the rest of forever," Kakashi-sensei said, dumping a very thick portfolio into Shikamaru's lap.

"That looks…incredibly time-consuming," Ino said. "And emotionally taxing."

"Yes, but I have faith that Shikamaru will be able to deal with it," Kakashi-sensei smiled.

There was this little glint in Shikamaru's eye that said he was in a very good mood for the words challenge accepted today.

Knowing him, that meant he'd have it done by the end of the week.

"Isn't this dangerous to learn on your own, though?"

"For the idiots with terrible handwriting who are trying to paint their own exploding tags without supervision at home, sure. But that's not what we're doing here. It's a bit like studying a new language. The difference is building up your grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and idioms before attempting to put together sentences, as opposed to walking blindly into a foreign nation, shouting gibberish and making a fool of yourself. Judging by your learning style, you'd do better trying to figure it out for yourself, but don't be afraid to ask me to walk you through something if you need help."

There was a little smirk playing at the corners of Shikamaru's lips. "Like messy handwriting? Don't worry, sensei; I've dealt with a lot worse."

"Really?" Kakashi-sensei asked, intrigued.

Shikamaru looked like he was about to explain, but then he cut himself off. "I'm not telling you, if you're going to use it as an example."

"Too smart for me," Kakashi-sensei sighed. "Oh, well. Unless you mean your father – in which case, don't worry; I'm not that irresponsible."

Shikamaru sighed. "You got me."

"Why? What does your dad do?" Naruto asked.

"He's so lazy, that he regularly doesn't even bother to finish writing out the entire word, and ends up putting down this sorry half-formed excuse of a character instead. He's smart enough to remember what he's writing about – the symbols he writes down are just things to trigger his memory with – but, of course, other people reading his writing aren't as familiar with the context," Shikamaru explained. "Useful for cryptography, when it's deliberately done – but extremely annoying in personal letters since I'm usually the person people go to when they can't find him, or when he's asleep, which is all the time."

"Oh," Naruto laughed, despite himself, remembering some of the other stories Shikamaru had told them about his father. He couldn't help it – the thought that Konoha's Jonin Commander would rather just put another roll of toilet paper on top of the preexisting tube instead of actually opening the dispenser to replace it, just like he did sometimes, was too funny.

"And last but not least: Ino," said Kakashi-sensei. "As your chakra nature is fire, learning lightning manipulation as the next step won't be too difficult. If you can do that thing with your hair, other techniques should not be much of an issue."

Ino nodded, and accepted his little scheduling slip. Naruto couldn't see it from where he was sitting, but it seemed really detailed. He could see her eyes darting rapidly across the training regimen Kakashi-sensei had come up for her, and more than once her face crinkled in a slight wince. No doubt she was already feeling the pain of what Kakashi-sensei was going to put her through. As a multiple-time victim of his sensei's unusual combat tactics, Naruto could vouch for exactly how well they worked.

"Ino, if you want to wait for me to finish up with Naruto, we can start our first training session right after this. And Shikamaru, I'll see you later – I trust you'll be fine on your own, yes?"

"That sounds reasonable," Shikamaru said, already completely engrossed in the sealing notes Kakashi-sensei had given him.


The Nara Clan Compound

I was practically skipping past our front doors, ecstatic beyond belief. This wasn't any old sealing textbook. This was the culmination of knowledge from modern sealing masters like Jiraiya. And considering how so much information of similar calibre had been destroyed in Uzushiogakure generations ago, you can understand how big of a deal this was for me.

My excitement distracted me to the point where, while running to my room, I nearly tripped over my father, who was lying in the middle of the living room floor with a manila folder opened over his face.

"Ugggh," he groaned.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Performance reviews are coming up. Aw man…I don't want to do this…so much paperwork…I hate these Jonin applications so much…" He rolled over and mumbled incoherently about personal statements into the floorboards.

Right. The Jonin evaluations.

The Jonin trials were different from the Chunin exams in that there wasn't some big test that any yahoo with a teacher recommendation could sign up for and maybe pass. Watching a bunch of Genin duke it out in a big stadium? Fine. But no one smart would throw a big fancy tournament to brag about the secret powers and techniques of their elites to the world.

So the Jonin exam was less of an exam and more of a really hard technical interview in front of a board consisting of the Hokage, the Jonin Commander (that is, my father), and any other number of important figures.

But of course, important people were busy ones, so they could only test a limited amount of candidates. Really, the hard part wasn't passing the evaluation (which was pretty high standard already), but getting one in the first place. They only gave time slots to people who were sure not to waste their time. Couldn't use up the Hokage's waking hours on guys with no chance, after all.

There were the basic requirements, like having completed at least a set number of A-ranks and B-ranks, having a 95% mission pass rate within the last five years, having a clear health and psychological profile, that sort of thing. But after that, it was a bit of a toss-up. There was a very stringent baseline for what it took to be Jonin-level, one that couldn't be expressed solely on paper. That was why those with well-known names and impressive missions on file were more likely to get a slot, and thus, a chance at a promotion.

So it was really important for regular guys like Izumo and Kotetsu, whose resumes weren't brimming with standout achievements (in comparison to my team, which managed to increase our mission difficulties by at least one grade every time we left the village), to get a direct "in".

Izumo and Kotetsu, right.

"I know – why don't you let me help you," I said, putting my sealing homework down. Oh, but I wanted to get started on it so badly! But I already promised Izumo and Kotetsu that I'd help them… Was this bribery? Corruption? Yeah, probably. But I bribed them first. And I wasn't giving them the promotion; just the opportunity. If they blew it in front of the Hokage, then it was on them. "Just tell me what makes you immediately filter an application out and I'll help you sort through those."

He yawned. "Spelling and grammar errors anywhere. The personal statement only has room for 150 characters, so if they can't even pay attention to detail there that's a bad sign for the field," he listed, ticking off his fingers as he went. "If there is a vague or flowery sentence like 'I am a good leader' or 'I care about my subordinates' without a concrete example from the field, toss it. If their letter of recommendation comes from a friend instead of a superior and is similarly bad, toss it – that just means that they're trying to cover up their absolute lack of substance."

Some of the chunin and tokujo in the pile I recognized, like Hana Inuzuka and Anko Mitarashi. Most of them, I barely knew, having heard their names while working in the mission office but not talking to them enough to accurately assess their skill. As I continued reading out names, my father would give a few comments, ranging from "nowhere near good enough yet" to "ready for promotion in a technical sense but waiting wouldn't hurt".

Some Chunin were ready for Tokubetsu Jonin but not full Jonin; and some Tokubetsu Jonin were still too overly specialized. Some were mentally ready but did not have the combat skills; others were the opposite, Jonin-level fighters who were still too hotheaded or lacking in leadershsip experience. Still others were passed up solely because they were young, and, as no war had been officially declared yet, there was no point in speed promotions.

Finally, I got to Izumo Kamizuki's. Thankfully, his form-filling skills passed my father's basic standards, so I wouldn't have to explain to him later that I was unable to get him a performance review because of a typo. "I think this guy might be good."

"Izumo Kamizuki? You really think so?"

I shrugged. "I had to spend a lot of time with him during that period of time where we were doing nothing but paperwork missions. He's not as dumb as he acts."

My father smiled. "We seem to have a lot of those people in Konoha."

I grinned back, and thought of Naruto. "That we do."

Eventually, we finished, and I was finally able to retreat to my room and start my real training. Decades' worth of faded paper and ink, barely legible diagrams and smudged data. I closed my eyes and inhaled the musty smell. This was perfect.

Even before studying the content in detail, I was already learning a great deal of interesting things about the authors of these works simply from the marginalia. Such as how Kakashi-sensei was a complete liar when he claimed he was incapable of writing more neatly, or how Jiraiya was quite fond of doodling stick figure comics to illustrate his points, or how the Fourth Hokage habitually wrote himself reminders of daily life right next to his research logs, as if this work took up so much of his life that all other things became peripheral side thoughts.

It probably did.

Reminder: Kushina's birthday tomorrow, invite her to Ichiraku's?

Pick up dry cleaning 3:30 pm

Eggs, onions, rice cakes (?)

Proofread Jiraiya's book later

Ask after C-ranks for Kashi-chan

Wait – Kashi-chan?

There's only one person in Konoha with those syllables in his name. Huh. That makes sense, why they chose to have him learn the Flying Thunder God technique of all people.

Though, it was incredibly weird to think of Kakashi-sensei when he was still young enough to be called Kashi-chan. Considering just how much effort he put into surrounding his personality in an aura of trollish mystery, getting to know that particular piece of history was the equivalent of watching the planets align. Simply hearing him honestly talk about himself in any way was a gold mine. And, I supposed, the Yondaime too, who I was only just starting to consider almost-human. Had to keep up the appearance of ghostly-legendary-figures and all that.

I tried to picture Kakashi-sensei at six years old, short and round-faced, still in the process of losing baby teeth and yet already brandishing weapons and demanding C-ranks. It was both sad and hilarious at the same time.

Those two things seemed to come in pairs a lot.


The REAL Kirigakure

Mei Terumi was not happy, and so by default Ao was not, either.

"Explain to me again how we were wrong!"

"I don't know how we were wrong!" Ao snapped. "I just know that we are!"

"How can we be wrong?!" Mei yelled back, her voice cracking. "The Sanbi! The girl that died! Was she or was she not Rin Nohara!"

"She was," Chojuro whispered. "I swear to you, we double-checked everything. It was definitely her. Of all the conflicts we have had with Konoha in history, hers is the only case in living memory with at least one of the involved parties still alive. But even if it wasn't her, Kakashi Hatake was definitely there that night. I managed to find the ANBU containment cell they were holding her in that night, and there's a big black electrical burn mark on the walls where they replaced the lock."

"Exactly!" Mei crowed. "Kakashi Hatake is her only surviving teammate. If even we've heard his own comrades call him a 'vindictive little shit' all the way out here in our literal backwater, you know the stories about him being insane enough to do something like this are serious!"

"Well, it can't be Hatake because he doesn't have a Sharingan!" Ao managed to scream over the slowly growing din.

"He doesn't – " Mei whipped her head around. Her blue eyes were blazing furiously. "What."

"Exactly that. This baby doesn't lie." Ao tapped the side of his head, where his Byakugan lay. "I got a good look at him during the scuffle. All the chakra pathways from his shoulders up as well as both of his arms are off. Gone, shut off, burnt out. No chakra, no Sharingan, and no Master of a Thousand Jutsu bullshit."

There was only one phrase that could properly sum up his thoughts when he had first seen that on the field, and that same phrase came out of Mei's mouth just now.

"What the heck."

"I promise you, this isn't a joke."

Chojuro scratched his chin. "Strange that they'd let him out of the village, then. He's got a huge price on his head. Without the Sharingan, he's nothing."

Ao shrugged. "There was a second Jonin with them. Maybe he whined and complained so much that they figured it couldn't hurt if they just let him out, provided he brought along a babysitter."

"Maybe he has another secret weapon that we don't know about and the Sharingan was only ever just a cover-up for the real deal."

"Ugggh," Mei's head hit her desk with a solid thunk. "All right. Ao. Tell your story from the beginning. Again, if you please."

Ao rolled his eyes. "Fine. So, I was going to capture Hatake like you ordered. I couldn't do it myself, obviously, so I needed some relatively strong fighters as allies. But I couldn't have them traced back to us, either, meaning said ninja had to want to work for free. Perhaps someone with an axe to grind against Konoha, Hatake himself, or his dead father."

"Blah blah blah, so by luck you stumbled upon a bunch of survivors from Otogakure, tricked them into thinking you were their old master come back to life, ordered them to go get you a Sharingan, and somehow coerced them into going after Kakashi Hatake." Mei waved her hand. "Skip to the interesting part, when you started fighting."

"I thought my completely original Killer Intent genjutsu was plenty interesting," Ao muttered. "Right. I used my Byakugan, again, to spy on Hatake's team, and figured out they were going to Wave Country to catch pickpockets. Some silly Genin mission; I don't care. We planned an ambush; Hatake and his team walk right into it – "

"And now those Sound guys are so dead you don't even have corpses to show for it," Mei drawled, unimpressed.

Ao crossed his arms. "It wasn't Hatake, it was the damned kid on his team who I'm pretty sure is the jinchuuriki of the freaking Nine-Tailed Fox. One moment he was an average dumb little Genin, and the next, everything within one hundred meters of him was charcoal." He shuddered at the memory. Thank goodness I was observing from a kilometer away, else I'd be toast just like the others.

Mei sighed. "Alright, alright. As disturbing as it is to know that Konoha trusted that maniac with children, no one knew it was you, right?"

"Right."

"Good. Because if Yagura is Konoha's idea of retribution for one dumb kid, imagine what they might do for three."

There was a long silence as they sat there, thinking.

"You're absolutely sure she didn't have any distant relatives who could also come back to get revenge?" Mei asked.

"The family records in Konoha are pretty much open-source. Rin Nohara was a nobody; her family minor, with no bloodline limits, composed of a few merchants and healers here and there, and they produced maybe one or two shinobi each generation, none of whom ever made it to Jonin. By all means she was completely insignificant."

"And she had no other friends? None?" Mei demanded.

"They had an Uchiha teammate. That was how Hatake got the Sharingan." Chojuro shrugged. "But he's dead – died in the Third war, long before the Uchiha Massacre, in an operation against Iwa that went south."

"Iwa. Never liked those pricks." Mei's frown grew deeper. "Why the heck hasn't anything happened to them? Why us? We kill one girl and get the full brunt of their revenge with Yagura, while Iwa kills thousands in conflicts and betrayals, and get off scot-free with nothing more than a treaty full of empty sanctions!" She shot the grainy photograph of Rin Nohara a vicious glare and crossed her arms. "She's not even that pretty!"

"Beats me. People do the weirdest things for love."

"The only Sharingan left in existence belong to Itachi and Sasuke Uchiha, both of whom were still children who hadn't yet developed the Sharingan when we first started observing Yagura's madness," Chojuro cut in.

"If you're going to use that as an excuse, Hatake was only thirteen…"

"Hatake was already a Jonin by then," Mei cut in. "He gets no excuses."

"But he's an active-duty jonin," Chojuro muttered. "How the hell would he regularly take missions and infiltrate Mist at the same time? Unless…the Sharingan has the ability to maintain its mental connections, even after eye contact has been released? That goes against everything we know about ocular techniques. Then again, the Sharingan has been around for many generations. It's not a stretch to say that they might have figured out a way to make genjutsu stick around…"

"But we've already established that Kakashi Hatake was not the answer," Ao reminded them. "If it's true that his Sharingan is no longer functional, then it's very likely that the genjutsu on Yagura won't be lifted, even if we killed him. And it's also likely that if we captured him alive, he wouldn't be able to break the illusion for us anyhow."

And yet, the more Ao thought about it, the less sure he was of his earlier conclusion. What if, what if, Hatake was pulling the wool over their eyes after all?

Obviously, something like that would take a hellish amount of chakra to maintain, and it was no secret that one of Sharingan Kakashi's few weaknesses was his pitifully average chakra reserves compared to other ninja on his skill level. That bit of information was common knowledge among everyone who had faced him in battle and survived. If he revealed his Sharingan, you were likely to be toast; on the other hand, if you could drag out the fight for long enough, he might toast himself first.

Unless the reason why his chakra reserves were so low – ridiculously so, actually – compared to other ninja on his skill level, was because he was constantly expending his chakra maintaining this link?

But when you thought about it…Gari of Iwagakure, the Raikage, Zabuza Momochi, even those damn puppeteers from Sunagakure, who were pretty lightweight themselves – none of them had such prominent issues with chakra exhaustion. In fact, he was the only one of his stamina level to achieve such international infamy. One might even say that such achievements were logically impossible for someone of his physical limitation, no matter his intelligence…

"Fuck," Ao said, reaching for a bottle of wine. "I'm turning into a conspiracy theorist."

"What will we do now?" Chojuru asked glumly. "That was our best lead gone."

"Wait for Zabuza and Haku to report back, I suppose," Mei said. "And in the meantime, help that Suigetsu kid find his brother's sword, though considering all the time he spent as a test subject for that Orochimaru creep, I'm not sure if we can trust him yet."

"He doesn't have a functioning curse seal or any physical modifications I can see," Chojuro said. "We should at least give him a chance – "

She shook her head, ignoring him. "What the actual fuck. I honestly thought we had been on to something here."

By now, Ao was well on his way to getting wasted. Just to be safe, however, he took another drink. "The dumbest plan to have ever come out of our village," he ranted. "All this over some stupid girl, whose only important contribution to the world was dying."


A/N: Congrats to Sirwalterbeck, Untrust Us, and randompizza7 for guessing the result of Kirigakure's scheming way back in chapter 36.

Did anyone else guess that? Let me know in the comments!

Also, if you see any mistakes, let me know. This chapter has not been proofread carefully.