A/N: So. Um. Hi. It's been like, two months? Almost? Uhhh…it appears that being sick, finals season, applications, and real life just generally do not mix.

IMSOSORRYPLSDUNHURTME

But, uh, it's winter break now. So. Thanks for your understanding and patience :3 And thank you so much to all my kind reviewers; I promise I'm reading them even if I haven't had the time to reply.


The Yamanaka Clan Compound

As they stood there and stared at Fuu Yamanaka, the whole situation dropped on Naruto the same way Konoha men aged: slowly, and then all at once. Even without Ino's mental connection to prompt him, Naruto could plainly read the atmosphere from the fuckfuckfuck expression on Shikamaru's face alone.

They had to stall. Now.

Luckily, a childhood of pranks and avoiding teachers had honed those skills frighteningly well for him.

Naruto jumped to his feet, and with a motion so exaggerated it was obviously fake, yelled, "INTRUDER! INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT – "

Whatever Fuu had been expecting, this was obviously not it. Naruto ducked his head to hide his smirk and clumsily charged at his kneecaps in a halfhearted tackle, all the while screaming and yelling like a monster from the worst kind of B-rated horror movie.

Fuu casually sidestepped, and Naruto went skidding across the smooth hardwood floors into the hallway wall, sending a hopefully not too priceless vase crashing to the ground. It shattered upon impact, sending clay shards flying everywhere. Mostly into Fuu's face. All by accident, of course. "Die, filthy Iwa nin!"

Fuu wiped at the bleeding scratches on his face. "Excuse me, but what part of 'Ino's cousin' did you not underst– "

What he said might have been true – they did look something alike – but since Naruto had never met him before he could always claim later that he thought the man was a lying thief and was only doing his job. Given how much of an "idiot" everyone and their grandmother "knew" he was, that was a very plausible scenario.

"Never seen you around here before!"

"Ah, I was in ANBU since I was small, so I never got to see home very often. I've only recently returned to pay my respects to Inoichi Yamanaka. He was a good man, and a good uncle, to me. I'm sorry it couldn't have been under happier terms."

"Like you expect me to believe that! That's exactly what an evil Iwa nin in disguise would say to trick us all!"

"With all due respect," Fuu sniffed, sounding like he wanted nothing more than to grind Naruto into the ground and teach him his place, "please control yourself. You are causing a scene."

His attitude reminded Naruto a little bit of Sasuke or Neji from their Academy days, though much more sociable and much less rude. As in, Sasuke or Neji would have insulted him before beating him up. Fuu seemed to have more self-control than that. Obviously, he still looked down upon Naruto, but as an older ninja with plenty of experience under his belt, he didn't need to prove his worth by defeating some kid way beneath his level. At the very least, he was trying his best to be polite. From any outsider's point of view, Naruto was the one being rude to a guest, and Fuu was treating him with way more respect than he deserved.

Good. Being underestimated was always useful. Naruto giggled internally. Oh, please. Do you know who you're dealing with? I am Naruto Uzumaki, Scourge of Academy Teachers Everywhere, student of Kakashi Hatake, the Desk Chunin's Worst Nightmare. I could keep you stuck in this exact hallway for MONTHS, and my clones won't even starve.

"No way! You're just trying to trick me into surrendering! A good ninja never surrenders!" (Not true; if he hadn't learned when to fight to the death and when to hide the evidence and book it, he'd have never survived the Academy.) "LIVE FREE OR DIEEEE!" Naruto charged back at Fuu with as much arm waving and rug throwing as possible. Literally. Naruto deliberately "tripped" into Ino's pile of bedding so that when he got up, he could upend every single blanket into the air in the most hilariously incompetent escape ever. Some landed on Fuu's face; he smacked them to the floor.

Fuu wrinkled his nose. "You have made a mess of Ino's room. I hope you will clean up after yourself. Please cease this nonsense immediately. Ino, I understand your bond with your teammates, but propriety dictates that someone from outside the clan must – Ino? Ino?"

Ino was gone, as was Shikamaru. Slipped out of the room when Fuu had been distracted a la big fluffy comforter to the face. By now, all of the Yamanaka, Nara, and quite possibly Akimichi would know what was going on, and work to crowdsource a solution (or at least a plan for more stalling) as they spoke. Naruto waited patiently for Fuu to process this.

Watching the annoyance on Fuu's face quickly morph into the absolutely most delicious look of suffering was quite possibly the most entertaining thing Naruto had ever seen in his life.


The Hokage Tower

Meanwhile, the cogs were turning in Kakashi's head – never a good sign. Of all the evil ideas he'd ever had in his life…he prayed this one would be the best of them all.

He owed Ino this much. He had been useless in helping her heal, but he could do his best to take care of everything else while she took care of herself.

It occurred to him that the ferocity with which he loved his students had grown to alarming levels. Kakashi was slightly terrified at the thought of this. That one day they'd finally smash all his barriers to bits. They'd already slipped through his first few lines of defense. He still had a couple left. He hoped they wouldn't make it that far. It wouldn't be pretty if they did. He cared about them too much to let them see something as horrible as that.

But that was a worry for another day. The here and now were all he had, all he lived to exist for.

They might have been dealt a shitty hand, but they could still make the best of what they had. Kakashi was no stranger to the mountain of injustices, both petty and significant, that had accumulated over his lifetime. If there was ever a time he could not win, he would do everything in his power to make sure his enemies lost, too.

The art of being an immature little brat was nothing new. Kakashi was simply one of the special few who had never grown out of it by his fifth birthday. Why would he? To be a sore loser was his god-given decree; to allow his worst petty childish demands run to excess was a universal human right. Derailing so-called "perfect" plans, snatching the satisfaction of victory out of their grasp, yanking them down to your level of failure…sometimes, spite could sting even worse than the coldest revenge.

Like that time you chucked the bells into an explosion right before we got you so we couldn't have them? Ino asked.

Kakashi grinned. Yes, like that.

So what do we do now?

Now? Kakashi closed his eyes. Pretend you're stupider than you actually are. Act like you have no idea what's going on. Be a normal, shallow-minded, childish little girl. And never forget where your powers truly lie. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment to actually be on time for.

"Kakashi? What the hell are you doing here?"

Mainly because I never scheduled it.

"You've got a very nice office, Hokage-sama," Kakashi grinned, gleefully observing just how perfectly everything was arranged. "It would be a shame if something were to…happen to it."


The Yamanaka Clan Compound

Okay. Stall for time. Pretend to be a stupid little girl. Ino could do that. Being a natural blonde also helped. Let them underestimate you. Her sensei's advice. Once upon a time, she'd thought him to be so silly. They had never seemed more important than now. Let them underestimate you, but never let yourself underestimate them.

She was a powerful shinobi in her own right, one of the youngest people to have ever ascended to the title of a clan head in Konoha's history, and she was not going to let anyone dictate her life and ruin her family, like she was some weak, spoiled, useless little princess. He thought he could play her, huh? Well, she had something to say to that.

She, and the entirety of the Yamanaka clan. Which, to be fair, wasn't that huge, but they made up for it by being as loud as ten normal people each.

Once they all acknowledged her order to gather in the main meeting room, she returned to the hallway where Naruto had accosted Fuu. The sharp smell of blood assaulted her nose, and for a second Ino's heart skipped one very terrifying beat.

Luckily, it turned out that the blood was Fuu's, not Naruto's. Naruto was not hurt. Simply very clearly female. And also very clearly naked.

Given the way her cousin was reacting to Naruto's highly graphic transformation jutsu, it was evident that while he'd been very clearly emotionally castrated, his basic instinct to ensure the survival of the human species was still very well alive. Being trained to resist seduction was in any skilled ninja's repertoire…but. Well. Twenty years of repression didn't do anyone any favors.

"Naruto-kun!" she called, pitching her voice higher. "Please calm down! He really is my cousin! I think."

"Ah, haha! My bad! So sorry for not believing you, Ino's cousin," Naruto bowed facetiously, and the remnants of his Harem jutsu disappeared in puffs of pink smoke. "It's just that I've been tricked before, since I'm not a very good ninja, so I wanted to make sure."

Fuu raised his eyebrow, as if asking, You honestly expect me to believe that?

"Anyway, Fuu, I wanted to introduce you to the rest of my family! In its entirety."

"I have already – "

"In front of everybody, Fuu, come on! People might ask questions if they see you walking around like this. You might get attacked again, like Naruto did, because people don't know who you are. It would be such a shame for us to treat such an upstanding member of ANBU so poorly, after all the sacrifices you've made away from your home! I have so many things planned for your welcome!" Including hours of bureaucratic hell, but Ino wasn't going to tell him that. He'd find out firsthand soon enough.

Not letting him answer, Ino pulled Fuu away by the arm. Bemused, he followed, his silence no doubt signalling how furiously he was trying to work out what they were up to. If he really enjoys thinking so much, I'll accommodate him, Ino thought, and proceeded to take him the long way around to the central meeting room.

About four or five people were already there, and more were trickling in. Ino made sure that they all took absolutely forever in settling down. As in the case with any large family party, five in the afternoon usually meant the last people wouldn't be showing up until at least six-thirty, if they were lucky. This didn't stop Fuu, who immediately announced himself and his poorly veiled intentions. Or, tried to.

"Hello, everyone. I am – "

"Excuse me," someone – more specifically, one of Naruto's clones, disguised to look like a generic Yamanaka clan member – piped up from the back. "I suggest the absence of a quorum."

Fuu's eye twitched. "There is no such thing. And even if there were, this is an informal gathering; we are not voting on policy − "

"He has a point, though. We can't proceed until everyone is here, otherwise it ruins the point of a clan-wide gathering!" Ino bat her eyelashes innocently. "Besides, don't you want the entire clan to know you?"

"Dear Rikudo – fine."

"Now, if you'll excuse me – "

"Hold on, why are there Nara and Akimichi here?" Fuu interrupted, frowning. "This is a Yamanaka clan affair."

"Silly Fuu!" Ino flicked his nose. "Our families have been allies for generations, or have you forgotten? They come over to visit or socialize all the time! What if they see you and don't recognize you, and mistake you for a party crasher? Then they might put pepper powder in your gloves right before you go to the bathroom, and that would be really bad."

Fuu blinked a few times, and then pinched the bridge of his nose. "Is this what it's all about? Rest assured, Ino, I am only here to ensure the stability of the clan until you marry and have children of your own. I have no desire to take your birthright from you. I was merely doing my duty, as a clan member of proper rank. It is my responsibility as your elder to offer you my assistance in executing your duties as clan head."

Well, of course not. A complete unknown waltzing in and snatching the clan headship away from Inoichi Yamanaka's only child was just asking for mutiny, a plan doomed to fail from the start. No, he was here for something else. Assistance, my ass.

"I appreciate your loyalty and kindness, cousin! I'd never accuse you of such a thing!" Ino twirled her hair around her fingers, all the while keeping a placid, brainless smile on her face. Being blonde helped.

Did he know she was messing with him? Probably. She was Kakashi-sensei's student, after all. Her reputation had been kickstarted by mere association, and the insane amount of trouble their team kept getting into (and somehow surviving) only inflated that.


The Nara Clan Compound

Deep breaths. Calm down. Ino was doing well, last I checked; I had faith that she was strong and wily enough to make it through the drama.

As I rushed home, Ino sent me intermittent updates about the proceedings over her telepathic link. I'll admit, they confused me. Oh, I knew exactly what was going on, on a surface level. Ino was using every trick in the book and then some, to make Fuu's life more difficult. The full-body roll call, the accidental "oops I skipped someone, better start over to make sure I have everyone, wait I am missing someone I need to start over again, wait I forgot to count myself so let's start over one more time…"

It spoke volumes of Fuu's patience, that he managed to sit through four different iterations of the "protocol challenge" routine – in which the person assigned to hold the clan rulebook happened to be the oldest, most nearsighted, slowest reader in the world. I knew everything we were doing from our end; what I didn't get was Fuu's purpose in all of this. He was a trained soldier, not a politician. His social skills, while not abhorrent, were lacking. He was dangerous, because he had the potential to cause quite a bit of damage, but it was unlikely that he would be able to hold on to whatever meager gains he made in the long term.

Having Fuu usurp the Yamanaka clan headship was simply too obvious and failure-prone. Meaning, this likely doesn't have anything to do with the clan at all. It's all a smokescreen to disguise his real intentions…

He was bait. That was it. He was bait.

An obvious connection to Danzo and an easy source of information just sitting there, dumped right into the lap of a clan of mind-readers. Too effing easy. Whatever we stood to gain from inside his head was likely wrong – or, worse, a mixture of correct and incorrect information, and no way to tell which was which.

In short, the only reason he could possibly be here for was to cause instability. Danzo stood nothing to gain, but the Yamanaka clan stood something to lose if they let him out of their sight.

I thought harder. The Yamanaka clan was a small one; while Ino had a decent amount of cousins, few of them were solidly Jonin-level. Ino's father had been one of those few before his death; at the moment, the only other shinobi in her family capable of teaching Ino the rest of her clan's techniques was Santa Yamanaka. Fuu, I had no idea of his capabilities, but seeing as he survived Danzo for so long, I would put him at a similar level.

Then there was the matter of the empty post in ANBU interrogation. ROOT or not, Konoha needed a mind-reader in their ranks. Ino could not take over her father's position until she completed her Yamanaka clan training. In other words, as long as Fuu was there, the clans would have to expend their time, energy, and resources simply dealing with him.

So, one, Santa Yamanaka would have to take over both the ANBU post and Ino's training, like Inoichi Yamanaka had done before, while relying on the rest of us to keep an eye on Fuu for him. However, as Santa Yamanaka was nowhere near as good as Inoichi, making him do both at once would cause his performance to suffer. The Yamanaka clan jutsu simply did not work as well with shadow clones.

The second option was to have Santa train Ino only, and hope that ANBU could keep an eye on Fuu. This was unacceptable; even under the erroneous assumption that every single ANBU was loyal to the Hokage and not Danzo, it was simply dangerous to let Fuu have Inoichi's level of access permissions. And while Ino could step up as clan head to prevent Fuu from getting the post, she couldn't do the same for an ANBU position that required knowledge and mastery of all her clan techniques. And she definitely couldn't lie about it, either – that would fall apart way too quickly to be even worthy of consideration.

The third option was to have Santa take over the ANBU post only. Ino would have to figure out how to perform her clan techniques by herself, then, because there was no way in hell we were going to let Fuu into Ino's brain. The Yamanaka had secrets scrolls and books on this, just as my clan and every other clan did – to ensure that techniques wouldn't disappear in the event of a disaster. It would be harder without help, but Ino was smart enough to self-study. She could do it; she could. With enough training dummies, and Naruto's clones, even…it could work. Have Santa do most of his work in ANBU, help her when he had spare time, and trust that she could do the rest herself. It would take the load off the man's back, without leaving anything behind for Fuu to take.

It was the best solution I could come up with. Still, no matter what, simply with Fuu's presence, the Yamanaka clan would be splitting their resources, while Danzo himself was giving up no information (and, given the fact that Fuu was here in the first place made him "disposable", very little manpower). I suppose the fact that we were distracted and pinned down in an inconvenient position at all counted as Danzo's "win".

Then…what is he distracting us for? A distraction by itself meant little. The important question was what he was trying to do in the meantime.

I came to a stop before my father's office door, and slammed my fist against it.


Shikaku had barely unlocked the door before Shikamaru burst into his room, looking more than a little out of breath.

"We need to talk. In private."

It didn't take Shikaku much to figure it out. He stepped aside to allow his son into the room, letting the door slide shut behind him. With a practiced motion, Shikaku's fingers tapped their way around the lock, and the ink on the seal shifted again, trapping them in a box of secrecy. The walls had ears, true, but inside this place, they were the ears in the walls. "I take it the transition of power in the Yamanaka clan is not going as smoothly as we hoped." No doubt he, Chouza, and Kakashi were the first adults outside of her clan Ino would turn to.

"You think?"

The reasoning behind it all was simple. It wasn't as if they absolutely needed some half-trained barely-teenage girl in the special forces, no matter how smart or skilled she was, when they could easily get someone older. It was about power. It was about showing the clansthat Danzo could do what he liked, to drive a wedge into whatever they were planning.

If Fuu took control of Ino's training, he could control her, by the mere nature of the Yamanaka clan techniques. If he controlled Ino, he controlled the Yamanaka clan. If he controlled the Yamanaka clan, he could tie the hands of the Nara and Akimichi, as well as the hands of the two jinchuuriki under Konoha's name.

All of that, was of course, a big 'if'.

"I doubt Fuu Yamanaka will ever be accepted as a clan head, or even regent," Shikaku hurried to reassure him. "He is a virtual unknown as a person; he has very little political leverage outside of his genetic position in the line of succession – "

"I know that. I don't care how long he's been in ANBU; even without us or Kakashi-sensei to help her, she could still wipe the floor with him, and the rest of the Yamanaka would sit and eat popcorn as they watched.. This isn't about Fuu. He's just a distraction, a pawn for someone else, and you know damn well who. We promised to tell each other things, yes? What is he doing? Why is he here? What is he distracting us for? It doesn't help us, knowing that he is hiding something when we need to know what he's hiding."

Shikaku pinched the bridge of his nose. "With Inoichi out of commission, our information is fuzzier, but I am fairly certain that he is taking this transition of power as an opportunity to sneak in and remove whatever traces are left of Konoha's involvement in the Uchiha Massacre, along with any other pies he's had his fingers in over the years. Not that he hasn't always been doing that, but previously he was limited to a little at a time, to stay out of notice. Inoichi's death gave him a major opening that he would be foolish not to exploit."

"Then it's a matter of getting our hands on all the dirty details we can find out before Danzo manages to destroy them all."

"I've been collecting dirt on him for years. Then again, he's spent the same amount of time covering his tracks. There's only one person who might still know, and that's the Hokage."

It was unspoken between the two of them that they could never let the Sandaime in on any of this. If he didn't already know, then asking would be useless. And if he did know, then it meant that he was keeping those secrets for a reason, and they risked being silenced alongside them.

"But we don't have to be the ones to ask," Shikamaru suddenly interjected.

Shikaku raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

"Look. The Hokage's been itching for a successor for quite some time now, right? Currently, the contenders are Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Kakashi-sensei, but none of them are willing at all. And, I mean, I trust Jiraiya and Tsunade up until a certain point, but worst comes to worst, they might side with their old teacher over the clans, whom they have no real connection to. Kakashi-sensei, on the other hand, doesn't give two flying shits about anything except us. He's obsessed with our safety. He'd do it in a heartbeat."

"You think that if you can convince him to agree to become the Godaime Hokage, he'll be in a good position to find out just what the Hokage knows, and just how involved central command was with ROOT," Shikaku summarized.

"Exactly."

"I thought you said he'd hate it."

"He can pretend. I can repay him by doing the rest of the work behind the scenes. He'll just have to sit behind a desk, wear the hat, pretend he cares, and double-cross all the foreign dignitaries that stop by. Which he already does anyway." Shikamaru clenched his fists. "Dad, please. We need to get Kakashi-sensei on this. He is perhaps the only person here in a position to properly help us when it comes to the Hokage."

Shikaku was silent for awhile as he mulled this over. Of all the powers that were fracturing their village right now, which one of them wasn't dreaming of getting Kakashi Hatake on their side? And yet…

"I describe men as having plans and goals, and I describe plans and goals as logical or insane. I like to think of myself as having logical goals and logical plans. Danzo has insane goals and logical plans. Gaara, before we rehabilitated him, had insane goals and insane plans."

"And I take it Kakashi-sensei's insane plans ultimately walk towards a logical goal."

"Don't let his day-to-day behavior fool you. He knows exactly what the hell he's doing, and he plays the long game just as well as the rest of us."

Shikamaru smiled. "If that's the case, then I would rather have him on our side, don't you think?"