A/N: Sorry for the late update, AGAIN... on the other hand, I FINALLY have this entire arc written out (after multiple instances of writers block / discovering MORE plotholes that needed fixing) so I do mean it this time when I say my updates will be more regular.


Sakura's House

"Hey, Forehead."

"What, Ino-pig?"

"Do you like gossip and money?"

Sakura frowned. "A little, I guess. Why?"

"Well, I'm about to leave on a quick little training trip, and oh boy have I got a job for you…"


Jiraiya's House

"Welp, that's the last of it. Goodbye for now, kid. See you in a couple of weeks, months, whatever. Have fun with the Always Near But Useless squad." Jiraiya gave him a halfhearted slap on the shoulder.

Kakashi nodded. "Jiraiya?"

"What?"

"Why was Itachi disqualified from potential Hokage-ship?"

Jiraiya paused and put down his dusty tome of sealing scrolls. "Where'd you hear that from?"

Kakashi shrugged. "Places."

"What sort of places?"

"Stuff."

Jiraiya sighed. "Don't tell old Sarutobi I told you, okay? He was dying."

Kakashi narrowed his eyes. "What about me?"

"You'll still be around for several years, and with Tsunade we might be able to buy you even more time. Itachi, on the other hand, had a congenital lung defect."

And suddenly it all came crashing down. The puzzle pieces were starting to slot together. Oh, how Shikamaru would kill to be a fly on the wall for this conversation. Kakashi began laying down a path to fish for more information. "…I never knew about that."

"No one did. Most of the Uchiha clan didn't. Only his parents and a couple of the clan elders, along with the Hokage and the small team of trusted medics who helped deliver him, were aware of the fact. They went through great lengths to keep it off official hospital records, and to hide it from everyone else, even their own family," Jiraiya explained.

That made sense. Couldn't have your clan heir appearing to be anything less than perfect, before enemies and allies alike. "I get why they kept it a secret. And his younger brother wasn't born until Itachi was eight – he'd already proven himself to be a genius by then, so I get why they'd pinned a lot of their hopes on him instead of shunting him off to the side in favor of the spare," Kakashi said, thinking of Hinata Hyuga and how things might have played out differently if she'd been more like her cousin. "But why gamble so much on the Hokage-ship, then?"

"They knew he was ill, but they didn't know how seriously. Fugaku and Mikoto thought he'd have a few decades at least." Jiraiya leaned against the cabinet and closed his eyes. "That was part of the reason why they pushed him so hard to be a prodigy, you know. Part of the reason why he pushed himself so hard. When you know you only have until your forties to live, you try to make the most out of the time you have left."

"Forties. That's not good, but if they made him Hokage in his twenties like Minato-sensei, he'd still have a couple decades. Long enough to train a replacement. Other villages have had their Kage die around the same time and they were still fine." Kakashi frowned. "I was his ANBU team leader before the whole debacle. He was a smart and powerful shinobi who would have made a strong and intelligent leader. Surely a disease that would have killed him young-ish wouldn't be enough to sacrifice peace with the Uchiha clan for?"

"And normally you'd be right. Turned out, another checkup showed differently. His lung defect was far worse than initially thought. It might have been aggravated by how hard he was pushed early on. Anyway, they were wrong about him surviving to his forties." Jiraiya swallows. "It would have killed him by his early twenties."

"Ah." Kakashi tapped the surface of the counter with his fingers as he considered this fact. "He's in his early twenties now."

"Yep. He doesn't have much time left."

"And if he dies conveniently of illness, the secrets of the massacre die with him, unless someone outside of Itachi knows the reason he randomly snapped and murdered his whole clan," Kakashi said loftily.

"Convenient, isn't it?" Jiraiya agreed.

Kakashi thought back to the information he had gleaned from Shikamaru, as well as his own research on the matter. Shikaku Nara knew more than he did simply because Inoichi Yamanaka had had more access to those private files. That didn't mean that Kakashi was completely clueless – he, too, had his own methods.

He could see it playing out before his eyes. The Uchiha clan, thinking that one of their own would finally become Hokage. Then, suddenly, he was denied the position, no reason given. It was because of the illness, of course, but no one knew about it, so they just assumed that it was denied to Itachi for the sheer fact that he was an Uchiha. One thing leading to another, and suddenly there's a lot of rumors and discontent and radicals popping up left and right.

"But if Itachi couldn't become Hokage due to his illness, why couldn't they offer the opening to Shisui Uchiha instead?" Kakashi asked. "Young, charismatic, friendly, well-liked, and powerful, talented, skilled, dangerous. A little silly at times but that added to his charm, and he was held in high regard by the clan. Even the uptight old guard who disapproved of his personality had to admit that his fighting skills were second only to Itachi. Appealing to the general populace, and also, S-ranked and feared by our enemies. Don't tell me he had some congenital defect, too."

Jiraiya shook his head. "He didn't. Not to my knowledge."

"So what happened there? Why couldn't you guys offer Shisui the job? As long as the next Hokage was an Uchiha, it would have gone a huge way to placating the clan…"

"As a matter of fact, we did – " Jiraiya paused, but it was too late. Kakashi's eyes had that flash in them.

"So you guys were trying to placate the Uchiha. There was something going on that required all this tiptoeing to be happening in the first place." Kakashi tilted his head. "What on earth were you all doing?"

Jiraiya glared at him. Probably thinking something like stupid brat too clever for his own good. On second thought, that was probably exactly what he was thinking. "You don't need me to answer that question. You're clever, Kakashi; you know exactly what the village sentiments were regarding the Uchiha after the Kyuubi attack. The Uchiha were angry because they were being treated like they were guilty even though they were innocent and had lost many of their own in the attack. Everyone in power knew that having the next Hokage be a younger, popular, friendly Uchiha like Itachi or Shisui would go a long ways towards mending things."

"Right, right." Kakashi didn't believe Jiraiya's full explanation, full of half-truths, but he was willing to let it go for now. So. The Uchiha were angry, definitely, angry enough that the central government of Konoha had been entering secret talks with them. Angry enough, perhaps, that when those talks failed, there was no solution left except for an extremely convenient genocide? "That doesn't explain what happened to Shisui."

"See, that's the thing. I know we had to reject Itachi based on his health, but I also know that they had Shisui as an obvious backup candidate."

"And I don't know why those failed."

"No, I don't. Hell, I only know about Itachi because of Tsunade. She wasn't in Konoha at the time so I was the one arranging communications between Konoha Central Hospital and whatever gambling den she'd slunk into."

"I see."

"You'll have to ask the Hokage about all of that. Old man Sarutobi's the only one who knows the full story, apart from maybe Danzo Shimura."

Kakashi raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You really think he'll just tell me the truth that easily, after all the trouble they went through to hide everything?"

Jiraiya gave Kakashi a mocking grin. "Probably not, but you're the master of bullshit excuses, aren't you? As his successor – "

"Not officially."

"You're a shoo-in, kid, no one else is willing to take the hat," Jiraiya shrugged. "As his successor, you have a right to know what kind of mess you're about to step into, don't you?"

Kakashi nodded, and rubbed his face. Well, it didn't matter too much now. He had wasted too much time interrogating – er, exchanging goodbyes with Jiraiya as it was; he had to be there for his kids. He'd ask the Hokage after they completed their ANBU training.


ANBU Training Complex #2

Naruto swallowed a grunt of pain as his cheekbone made contact with the hard concrete. But there was no blood and no loose teeth. He was fine. Close to the ground, meaning better stability. Leg sweep.

The ANBU he was fighting against today was good. But Naruto was better, and both of them knew it. Naruto had gone down knowing exactly what would happen. His trainer for this session, on the other hand, would be walking out of here with a concussion.

Kakashi-sensei had trained them well. Team 7 had been held to Kakashi-sensei's own stringent standards ever since they had walked out of the Academy. The three of them had grown as a team. They had taken out S-ranked missing-nin together. In here, they were trainees 546, 547, and 548. They were not Team 7, but Group 18. And they weren't allowed to be anyone else, until they got their masks and codenames.

In theory, they were anonymous and equal to every other trainee. In practice, they were leagues ahead of everyone else and as such received "special" treatment.

Sometimes good, sometimes bad. If it was just physical training that made an ANBU an ANBU, Naruto would have felt unstoppable. But –

"Switch."

Back to the cells.

Fuck, he hated this.

ANBU trainees were kept in absolute isolation. Or, mostly absolute isolation. There was no way anyone could ever truly keep Team 7 apart, not with Ino to tie their minds together. They kept each other sane, even as the other aspiring ANBU around them cracked. Vaguely, Naruto wondered what it must have been like for Kakashi-sensei, as a thirteen-year-old fresh from trauma with all his teammates and family dead, no one left except for a sensei who had a whole village to take care of.

Sometimes, Naruto would think of his dad. His dorky, nerdy dad condemned to oblivion. The world must have loved him so much, for him to be a nearly completely uncontested Hokage even after losing two-thirds of his team. Naruto would think of Kakashi-sensei then. Kakashi-sensei as Hokage. The idea sounded laughable. It seemed like Konoha would descend into madness within a week. Key word, being seemed. No doubt under him it would get stronger.

Would Team 7 lose their sensei, to the greater good of Konoha's needs for a leader?

No. The whole reason why they were here in the first place, was so Kakashi-sensei could always keep them around.

"Trainee 548. Please complete the red card and green card in the correct order. When you are finished, arrange them according to the instructions on file 85-B, with the exception of any instructions superseded by the instructions on the files in the past weeks, with the exception of the instructions in the files you received yesterday."

Shikamaru, being the fucking genius he was, probably found this part of the training easy. Naruto had no idea how he could remember all this stuff and sort through it so quickly. Naruto was absolutely great at the shit he could find a reason for, but apart from "attention to detail" and "following orders" he couldn't for his life figure out a reason for the brainwashing.

Today the person watching him – waiting with some kind of cruel and unusual punishment if he made a mistake – had a bird mask. That meant nothing, of course. They'd quickly found out that the trainers were switched out every day. Sometimes they'd even condition them to associate one fighting or punishment style with one mask, only for them to switch in someone with the exact same body shape. This identity trading happened all the time.

The other trainees were having a hell of a time with this. Of course, this was exactly the sort of shit Kakashi-sensei would pull on a daily basis, so he (and presumably Ino and Shikamaru) had cottoned on quickly.

Kakashi-sensei was the only one who didn't change masks. Kakashi-sensei was always there, watching over them. Naruto could always sense his chakra, his looming presence over the other ANBU. He was different, in this different uniform, and yet, he was still the same. Their teacher had promised to go through the process with them, and there he was. Even if he wasn't coming in physical contact, he was always supervising somehow.

"Trainee 548. You have made an error. Please report to room 4C. Trainee 548. You have made an error. Please report to room 4C."

"Dammit!"

"Trainee 548. Speaking is not permitted. Please report to room 3R after completing your task in room 4C. Trainee 548. Speaking is not permitted. Please report to room 3R after completing your task in room 4C."

Naruto bit back a groan and struggled to his feet. As he shuffled out into the hallway, he saw a different ANBU hopeful – older than him by several years, at least – limp back into his cell. Hopeful, as in someone who wanted the mask and the fancy armor. Though why people wanted to be ANBU was something Naruto could not comprehend. Was it for prestige, for power? But there was no prestige in ANBU; they spent their days in silent, anonymous service. They would get no recognition for their duty here. As for power, ANBU didn't mean power, either. Many of them died, just like in the regular forces. At least in the regular forces, you could become Jonin, be known by the village for what you did.

Without the accelerated healing that came with containing the Nine-Tailed Fox, their wounds were darker, deeper; their bruises had bruises, little spots of different shades, one within the other, purple and green and yellow like squashed grapes. It was painful to even look at.

He wished he could just absorb the damage for everyone. Shouldering a larger part of the burden was no big deal if you could easily carry more than everyone else without much effort. He didn't mind himself too much; his wounds disappeared after a heartbeat anyway, so it wasn't as if it mattered. But he didn't like seeing Ino and Shikamaru injured. He wondered how they were.

"Fine," said Ino. "So's Shikamaru."

Shikamaru always approached everything methodically, after all. He was probably distancing himself from Kakashi-sensei. Perhaps he'd already reconciled himself with the fact that this man was no longer their teacher. At least, not the genin sensei they had gotten used to. It made sense, though. ANBU was a very different place.

His friend was exceptionally talented at shutting off all outside distractions. Anything that was clearly stupid or unnecessary, he burned. Or, if they were unnecessary now but might be needed later, he stored it away, like the old man Hokage and his filing cabinets, but with his brain. When he was focused it was like tunnel vision. His mind was a creation of data, and the only things that were allowed to bother him were the things he wanted to bother him.

"Good. Well, wish me luck."

Sometimes the "punishment" was something like scrubbing floors or doing squats. Sometimes it was more paperwork to take back to their cells to do. The paperwork didn't even mean anything, at least Naruto didn't think so.

The best way to deal with it, Naruto decided, was to numb his mind and think of something else while he waited. He knew Shikamaru was probably reviewing his studies or thinking up new fuinjutsu theories or some other, even as he was being slammed into a wall, the nerd. And Ino was probably thinking of either her family or her friends. Occasionally psychoanalyzing their tormentor, maybe, and reveling in her newfound power.

That was how she gained the upper hand over people. By figuring out exactly who they were and what made them tick, and storing it away like those snippets of gossip she bought off Sakura. And then, when the time was right, she'd let the words explode from her mouth like a bomb, and watch in evil ecstasy as her victims collapsed under the weight of their insecurities.

Well. He'd never seen her do it yet. He could imagine her doing something like that, though. He'd heard stories about this one guy from ANBU interrogation using the same stuff to crack people without ever even laying a hand on them. He didn't know how true they were, since every story amplified and accumulated its own exaggeration with every pass through the grapevine, but that didn't mean it wasn't true. And even if it was just a story, Ino could very well make it a reality.

Shikamaru and Ino made a good team when it came to messing with people. Shikamaru dealt with the physical details. He was the manipulator; he worked by appeal to logic. The detective. Meanwhile, Ino softened people up by figuring out all their personal details. Embarrassing or horribly painful secrets, stuff like that. She was also the manipulator, but with the abstract things.

And Naruto, he…he didn't know what he did.

Kill people? Kurama suggested. You're pretty good at that.

"That means nothing. We're all good at killing," he snapped. Shit, he'd said that out loud.

"Trainee 548. Speaking is not permitted – "

Wait, no, he caught the fallout. There you go. That was what he did. He caught the fallout and pieced them back together.

"You're speaking right now!"

"Speaking is not permitted for trainees. Please obey the instructions of your – "

During that period of time after Ino's solo mission, when he had been learning how to summon his dogs, he'd spent a lot of time at Ino's house, watching her train with Kakashi-sensei. The man would spar with her, knock her down, and then she'd push herself back up again. Naruto hadn't realized how hard it was, getting up after such a beating, until he'd finally experienced it for himself, here.

He wanted to remain limp on the ground. He wanted to give up. He didn't, because he wasn't so easily broken as that. But he wanted to, so badly. If only he was someone else; then he'd actually let himself give up. But he wasn't someone else; he was Naruto Uzumaki and that was all that mattered now because Naruto Uzumaki did not give up and so he would not.

Someone grabbed Naruto by the shoulders and shoved him to the ground. Naruto barely managed to get a foot out to steady himself before he got a broken nose. He whipped back around and tackled the other guy. His armguards chafed Naruto's cheeks, made extra painful by sharp knuckles. The was some special material, a combination of metal and porcelain and some weird polymer. Whatever it was, it was hard and sharp and did not absorb shock as well as regular metal.

Naruto tried to rip his trainer's mask off, but just as he tore through the cloth ties someone else grabbed him in a chokehold and pulled him off. He felt another pair of arms run under his shoulders and wrap around the back of his neck in a submission hold. "Right, that's enough. Back to the cells with you."

He had not slept in over seventy-two hours. Technically, it was longer, because even though they were supposed to receive a break every three days, the lights were left on during that rest period. It was the same ugly, glowing, off-greenish-white fluorescent color they'd seen from the POW jail cells. Only when it was time for them to wake up and start training again, did the lights switch off, leaving them to train in pitch blackness.

If they were lucky, break time would be quiet. If they weren't, break time would coincide with the times when other trainees in neighboring sections, working with different ANBU veterans, were at work, and they'd have to deal with noise on top of the light. They were special, but not that special, oh no – they weren't the only people on earth; there were other ninja in Konoha also training for the highly coveted entry into the special forces.

That was how they spent their days. Fighting in pitch black, and sleeping in conditions that were impossible to sleep in. This was the price they paid for becoming stronger, because to be any weaker meant being eaten alive.


SMACK. "Up. Again," the Monkey-masked trainer ordered.

I pushed myself to my knees. Painstakingly put my feet beneath me. Even for me, this was tough. I'd pulled all-nighters before, but never for such an extended period of time, and never under such horrible conditions. At home, I always had a warm bed to look forward to when work was done. But here, all I had was a concrete floor under glaring light, and the work was never done.

CRACK. He shoved me back to the ground again.

"What's the matter with you? Can't follow simple instructions? I said get up."

"It would help if you stopped pushing me over," I unwisely mumbled under my breath. Logically I knew that the fastest way for all of this to end was to stop backtalking, but I couldn't help myself. These bastards were clever, the way they went about this. The day I stopped backtalking was the day I died here. Not a literal death, but you get what I mean.

The ANBU training program wasn't there to physically challenge, not really. That part was already self-selecting. ANBU hopefuls were expected to already be performing at a certain standard before applying to join. If you couldn't take the physical aspect of all this, you wouldn't be here anyway.

"What was that?"

"Nothing, sir." I couldn't help but think how terrible of a prisoner of war I'd be. The smart thing to do would be to shut up and wait for it to pass. The arrogant little part of me that hadn't been beaten out of me early on, however, urged me to inject as much insolence as I could into every syllable of every word.

"It sure sounded like something. Are you talking back to me? I don't appreciate attitude. And I sure as hell appreciate liars even less. Especially bad liars."

If it was just getting beat up and shoved around, I could deal. Kakashi-sensei did that all the time. But fuck, this was so hard. They were mentally and emotionally depriving us, purposely annoying us and waiting for us to snap so that they could beat the rebellion out of us.

Fuck that. I never thought of myself as a particularly troublesome kid, but the day I lost all rebellion entirely was the day I became an emotionless cannon fodder robot. I could understand why they hated us. That was their problem, not mine.

"Well? I asked you a question. Aren't you going to answer me?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well?"

"I just answered you, sir."

"I don't like that tone." THWAP. I hit the concrete again, not tired enough to stay on the ground but too tired to fight back. "ANBU demands absolute obedience. This uppity, rebellious little boy has got to die before we proceed. Well?"

"Yes, sir."

"Better. Now get up. I asked you to get up more than fifteen minutes ago and you have yet to complete the order."

"Yes, sir." I've penned that into my calendar on the fifth of never, sir, I added sarcastically in my head.

There were other ways to become strong, to gain acknowledgment, than a tattoo and mask. The only thing keeping me going was that Ino and Naruto were here, too. I'd stay, for their sake.

"Now. Execute the kata I just taught you again – correctly, this time."

The kata had been this hundred-step thing that Monkey-face had gone through ridiculously quickly, in the span of less than twenty seconds, and then expected me to replicate down to the last hair, as if I had a Sharingan. It was an impossible task; it was too dark to even see anything substantial, and I was pretty sure that the kata was completely made-up anyway. Either that, or it was an existing complicated kata that was being performed wrong on purpose. So wrong, that learning it would make me worse, not better.

They knew who I was. They were doing this on purpose to piss me off.

Kakashi-sensei pissed me off on purpose, too, but he never taught us anything wrong, and he was pretty lax on the playful banter. These guys, on the other hand, were being bureaucratic assholes for the hell of it.

Conclusion: I wasn't meant to succeed here. This was all just an excuse to beat the individuality out of me. Even if I did succeed at whatever task, they'd just throw me something else, and so on, until I finally failed, at which time the punishment would be even worse.

Come to think of it, maybe Monkey-face and Kakashi-sensei weren't so different after all, even if Kakashi-sensei was far superior.

"What the hell was that, you brainless worm? That wasn't even anything close to what I showed you!" Monkey-face screamed in my ear.

I kicked him in the kneecap. He went down with a groan.

From the corner, I heard a muffled giggle. Even without looking, I knew Kakashi-sensei was watching over us.


The Hokage Tower

"The fuck?" Izumo whispered.

"It's true. There's been a coup in the Hyuga clan. I heard from my sister who heard from her boyfriend who heard from his Genin teammate who heard from their other Genin teammate who's a Hyuga branch family member!" Kotetsu said. "They all got new seals out of nowhere and now Hinata Hyuga's running everything!"

"Shh! Seriously? I mean, good for them; barbaric practice and all that. But where'd she get a new seal from? I thought those things couldn't be erased?"

"I mean, she's a student of one of the Sannin. If she didn't get it from Tsunade she'd have cribbed it from Jiraiya, probably. He's a sealing master, isn't he?"

"Never mind that, what's the Hokage going to do? How does this affect us? I mean, this is technically someone outside interfering with the autonomy of a clan, right?"

"Why do you care, you're not in a clan. Anyway, it's not like anyone's complaining except for Hiashi Hyuga himself and a few of the clan elders, and no one gives a shit about them. Literally no Branch Family member is complaining, ever, and that's 99% of the clan."

"I say serves that asshole Hiashi right; what kinda guy loses to his own teenaged daughter in a power struggle? That's gotta be a whole new level of incompetence. Hiashi Hyuga ain't shit anyway; I saw him once in the marketplace and he didn't even say hi, just turned up his nose at me like he was better than me or somethin' – "

"Oi! Shut the hell up!" someone across the room yelled. "The Hokage's about to talk!"

"Yeah, but I heard – "

"No one gives a shit about what you heard!"