Original Publish Date: 31st-December-2021(2017)

A/N: To Glacious, for never losing faith in either me or this story.

Chapter 30 – Through Glass

How much is real? So much to question

An epidemic of the mannequins, contaminating everything

We thought came from the heart, but never did right from the start

Just listen to the noises

(Null and void instead of voices)

Before you tell yourself, it's just a different scene

Remember it's just different from what you've seen

- Through Glass, Stone Sour

One Week Later, Training Ground 7: 4465617468

Golden sunlight poured on the unbound field which belonged to the team that had freed a country. The stream gurgled happily as it flowed past, the merry sound overlaid by the chirping of the birds around it. The trees were flowering in the full bloom of spring, and the wind was warm like the air under Gai's spandex-covered armpits.

Gai himself was present at the training ground, wearing a small smile as he surveyed the assembled teams. He looked like a proud parent at a school function, even though his 'kids' were awkwardly standing away from their underclassmen. The rookies were all standing in a group, catching up with each other and complaining about their disappointing D-ranks (the name Tora was mentioned more than once, with increasingly creative threats directed towards the feline menace), while their senseis stood around and gossiped, not unlike their students. And yes, this included Kakashi, who was on time.

And he had been the one to invite Gai.

I squinted suspiciously at Kakashi, but I could find no obvious reason for his highly uncharacteristic behaviour.

But I should explain why all the rookie teams were assembled at Team 7's training ground in the first place. Apparently, after I had followed Anko from Ichiraku's the other day, Hinata had previously planned to meet Naruto at the ramen stand, and their teams had run into each other. Kakashi and Kurenai got talking, and they were chanced upon by Asuma's team, who were returning from their D-rank of the day. One thing had led to another, and they had planned to have a joint-training session. And since Haku had still been hanging around the rookies, he had been invited too. Mostly at Ino's insistence. The blonde-haired girl was standing closer to Haku than anyone else and played with her hair as she spoke to the pretty boy, whose unease at being the singular focus of the teenage girl was palpable. It was compounded by the fact that Zabuza was meeting the Hokage, and so he couldn't rescue his student. Or laugh at his predicament, depending on his mood.

But that didn't explain why Kakashi was willing to subject himself to Gai. I squinted harder. I had come along because Naruto had whinged and whined at me until I agreed to come, but what was Kakashi's angle here?

A part of me was also intensely observing the ripples my presence had created. There had never been a joint training session like this in my Genin days, so this was clearly due to my presence. What else had I changed, knowingly or unknowingly?

Just then, the sun crossed an invisible boundary and marked the time as 10 am, and every ninja in the training ground started to move automatically. Kakashi moved to stand in front of the logs, as the kids sat in front of him in a vague semi-circle. Hinata sat next to Naruto, her cheeks adorably pink; and Ino sat next to Haku, a sly smile upon her lips as she looked at the former Mizu no Kuni denizen. Haku smiled tightly back at her and turned to Kakashi, seemingly giving the Copy Ninja his full attention. Ino took a quick look at Sasuke to see if he had noticed, but the Uchiha had sat down next to Shino and did not really care about what the rest of the group was doing.

Lee, of course, sat as near to Sakura as he could, with what appeared to be literal hearts in his eyes whenever he looked at the pink-haired girl. My lips twitched. Sakura hadn't yet noticed, and I made a note to stick around until Lee made his move. It would be entertaining, if nothing else.

I moved up to one side next to Gai, while Kurenai and Asuma stood to the other side of the kids. An observant person would have noticed that they stood as close to each other as Ino had stood to Haku.

Just as Kakashi opened his mouth to begin the session, there was the sound of someone landing in the clearing behind us. I sighed and turned. Sure enough, Anko was straightening up and walking towards us, her damnable grin upon her face. She quickly picked her way through the assorted students until she reached Naruto, then grabbed him by the back of the neck and picked him up like one would pick up a kitten. Naruto sighed loudly but didn't move otherwise. Clearly this was such a regular occurrence that Naruto has stopped reacting entirely.

And then Anko sat down Indian style and dropped Naruto in her lap in a single movement.

Naruto let out an embarrassed squawk and started to squirm. Anko grinned, wrapped her arms around him and pulled him back into her chest… Her rather impressive chest. Naruto shot a terrified look at Hinata next to him and started to squirm harder as Anko rested her chin on top of his head. She expertly ignored Hinata's glare and smiled sweetly at Kakashi, who gave her a deadpan look in return.

"Am I disturbing your class, Kakashi-sensei?" Her smile grew sharper as she continued, "Are you going to spank me for being naughty little kunoichi?"

Kakashi closed his eye for a second, sighed, and visibly decided that some battles just weren't worth fighting. He re-opened his eye and pointedly ignored the shenanigans in front of him, as Naruto turned increasingly redder as he awaited the inevitable explosion from Hinata.

Kakashi looked every other Genin in the eye for a minute to gauge how receptive they seemed to him.

"My name is Hatake Kakashi, and I'm the sensei of Team 7," he began. "My Bingo Book entry names me as the 'Man Who Copied a Thousand Techniques'. It's easy to assume that makes a ninjutsu specialist; an assumption that isn't wrong. But I'm not going to talk about ninjutsu today. Instead, I'm going to tell you about the single most important aspect of being a ninja."

He paused, his gravitas being felt by every shinobi in the clearing. "Would any of you like to guess what it is?"

His single eye looked through every present Genin in the field.

"The most important aspect of being a ninja is being filled with the Flames of Youth!"

No prizes for guessing who said that.

Kakashi looked at Lee for a long moment. He clearly bit back what he wanted to say and continued to give a deadpan look to the bowl-cut boy.

"Would anybody else like to take a try?"

"Being prepared?" Sakura asked uncertainly.

Kakashi tilted his head. "That's not a wrong answer."

Which meant that it wasn't the right answer. Sakura blushed slightly in embarrassment. Considering she had spent her entire time at the Academy getting the right answers, this was a notable occasion.

Kakashi let his gaze rest on Shikamaru for a moment, but the lazy genius couldn't be bothered to open his mouth.

"Being strong enough to beat your enemies!" Kiba exclaimed while smacking his palm with his fist.

Kakashi tilted his head again. "Yes, being strong enough to return home after meeting an enemy is always a bonus."

But surprisingly, the correct answer came from Naruto - who looked like a baby kangaroo in his mother's pouch the way Anko held him. "Umm... is it about what you told us in the Bell Test? Looking underneath the underneath?"

Kakashi's visible eyebrow rose. "As a matter of fact, yes."

A mixture of expressions were sent Naruto's way as the former deadlast got an answer right – a proud smile from Hinata, and disbelieving looks from everyone not named Hinata.

"Observation," Kakashi said, and he let the word hang in the air for a long moment, "is the single most important skill in a shinobi's arsenal. One second of inattention can cause your death on the battlefield. A single misplaced step can trigger a deadly trap. But," Kakashi folded his arms, "most times you will need this skill in seemingly the most mundane of circumstances.

"For example, Team 7 recently went on a bodyguard mission to Wave Country. It was supposed to be a standard C-rank mission. However, our client lied about the mission details, and we ended up fighting B-rank nuke-nin even before we left the borders of Fire Country."

"But why did you continue with the mission once it became clear that the parameters were lied about?" Shikamaru asked, his posture belying a glint in his eye that wasn't missed by any of the Jõnin present.

Kakashi smiled his famous eye-smile. "My cute little genin convinced me that they were up to the task."

The other Genin turned to look at their Team 7 counterparts, causing them to smirk, pink in embarrassment, and puff up with pride. (In Naruto's case, since he was still in Anko's lap, this made him look even more like a kangaroo plush toy.)

Kakashi then punctured their swollen heads, "Of course, I revised my opinion when they lost to the enemy."

Team 7 visibly deflated.

Kakashi eye-smiled again, "Since they all came home in one piece, we can call that a learning experience and move on. And believe me, they will learn from the experience."

His voice had become grim by the end, causing his genin to eye him warily.

"Unfortunately, this is more common than you would expect. Not outright lying about mission parameters, of course, but lying about the nature of the missions that are given by the client."

Kakashi straightened from his usual slouch, his gravity defying silver hair giving the added height an appropriate gravitas. "Oftentimes, a client will hire us to 'ensure' a certain outcome. Business deals, conflict between nobles, land disputes – these are all situations that you will be supervising in your careers. And when a client hires you, he does so with an expectation that you will help him achieve his desired outcome."

His single eye hadn't visibly blinked since he had said the word 'observation'. "Most times, the client is hoping to intimidate his opposition into giving up."

The genin exchanged wary looks. Even Anko didn't draw attention to herself, such was the thrall that Kakashi had put them under.

Kakashi's next words were as sharp as lightning. "However! This does NOT mean you can stand around like dumb muscle and allow yourselves to be used to bully people into submission. Konoha has a hard-fought reputation of being fair, and you must always strive to uphold that reputation. If it turns out that the client is involved in practices that Konoha would not condone, it is even acceptable to abandon the mission. Be warned that this is not a step to take lightly.

"All of this ties into the first thing I told you. Observe what is happening. Do your homework about the situation even before you leave the village. Know when to ask questions. More importantly, know when not to ask questions. Are you being taken for a ride? Is the outcome of the mission going to harm your village, directly or indirecitly?"

Since most of the genin in front of Kakashi were clan heirs and heiresses, they all understood the delicacy of the politics that Kakashi was trying to convey. Naruto, on the other hand, was scratching his head with a confused look. If Kakashi was going to talk about politics any longer, he would hop out of Anko's lap in sheer frustration.

Luckily enough, Kakashi observed that Naruto wasn't going to remain patient for much longer, so he switched topics. "Now, Naruto, there was something I wanted to discuss with you. Back in Wave, when Haku woke you up instead of slitting your throat, what did you first observe about him?"

Naruto blushed, and Haku had a sheepish expression on his face as everyone's attention shifted to them.

"Umm… I thought he was a girl at first, and that he was prettier than Hinata?"

Various snickers and eye rolls punctuated Naruto's statement.

Kakashi kept his gaze on his most surprising student, making him squirm adorably in Anko's lap. "Umm… I didn't think sh-he was an enemy, cuz he was very nice and told me he was looking for herbs for his friend who was hurt. I started helping him and told him that his friend was lucky to know him. He also told me something that I'm gonna remember for the rest of my life, that someone only becomes strong when they're protecting someone they care about!"

The Genin stared wide eyed at both Haku and Naruto, while the man who was assigned to supervise him stared at him and gave up hope for his future.

"Did you observe anything about the way Haku held himself?"

Naruto shot a look at Haku, who gave him an encouraging smile. "Umm…"

Kakashi held in his sigh. "Did you observe his muscle tone? The way he kept his balance as he walked? The way he scanned his surroundings?"

"Umm… no."

Kakashi sighed audibly, and the way Naruto cringed in front of his peers made sure that the lesson would sink in for him.

"That was a textbook infiltration attempt, one that was well executed. If Haku had not been as kind a person as he is, it would have ended in your death.

"A general rule of thumb you should follow is - be suspicious of anyone who approaches a shinobi of their own volition. They want something from you, and it is only your skills with observation and diplomacy that can help you judge their agenda. These are the skills you should look to train in addition to your physical conditioning, in order to become a better shinobi."

Kakashi looked at the assorted genin in front of him, and was happy to note that most of them were thinking on his words. After a few pointers on some exercises to improve their observation skills he decided to end the lesson, because he was sure that Naruto would soon start acting out or get bored. Anko's surprise inclusion had somehow kept him off balance enough to keep his attention on the topic being taught. Having known Naruto for years, she knew how he learned, and helped Kakashi understand how to handle his most rambunctious student.

Or maybe she was just trolling everyone.

I grinned. It was probably a combination of both. Why do something for one reason when you could do it for many?

I took my focus off Kakashi. I could follow the rough pattern of his thoughts since I had known him for years. The other lessons would be harder, since I didn't know the other sensei all that well to follow their thought process, but I was surprised to find that I was looking forward to it.

"As expected of my rival! A most enlightening lesson!" Gai boomed from next to me. Even though I had expected it, the sound took me off guard. Gai moved towards Kakashi, who held a look of resigned acceptance at being subject to his self-proclaimed rival's company.

"He doesn't really know how to do 'quiet', does he?" Asuma said as he walked over to me, motioning with his head to Gai as he did so.

I grinned, "The same way Kakashi can't keep his hands off his 'literature'. I personally think that's why they're such good friends."

Asuma grinned back. "Been a while since we met in the capital. How have you been?"

Capital? Oh. My cover for time travel. Without letting my confusion show on my face I answered, "Insanely busy. The old… Hokage-sama is a slave driver."

He raised his eyebrows as his hands automatically went to his cigarette pack at the mention of his father. "The Hokage? Hmph. Let me guess. You completed your mission objectives perfectly, but still managed to get chewed out by his holiness?"

It was my turn to raise my eyebrows as he lit up. "Something like that. How did you guess?"

Asuma took a long drag. "Been there a time or two myself," he exhaled a cloud of bitterness.

Our attention was momentarily stolen by an indignant shriek from Naruto while the rest of the rookies laughed at something a smirking Anko had said. Kurenai rolled her eyes and waded through the assorted genin to drag the troublesome kunoichi away. "We'll meet up after lunch," she said to her team as she took Anko by the arm to lead her away. Anko grinned cheekily as she vigorously ruffled Naruto's hair, a surprisingly affectionate gesture; one mirrored by the fact that she made her way out of the clearing without having looked my way once.

I wasn't the only one who had noticed. "Brr," Asuma mock shivered as he looked at me.

I pressed my lips together. A thought struck me about Asuma's motives for coming to say hello as I glanced back at him, "Looks like we're not going to be double dating any time soon."

He blew out another cloud. "Disappointing," he said solemnly. Inspite of myself, I snorted.

"Umm… Excuse me? Nanashi-sensei?"

While Asuma and I had been distracted by our girlfriends (ex in my case), Tenten had made her way to us. She pinked as our gazes landed on her. I hid my surprise at her unexpected appearance as I smiled reassuringly at her. "Just Nanashi, I'm not a sensei, just a regular Jõnin."

"Right… I'm Tenten, Gai-sensei's student. Umm, Naruto mentioned you forged a pair of chakrams in Kiri? I-if it's not too much trouble, could I please take a look? I'm a weapons specialist you see! So it will be really helpful to me if I could see the difference in forging techniques between Konoha and Kiri, especially since Kiri is well known for having superior weapons, and I want to prove that Konoha's weapons are as good if not better, but I can't do that without having a concrete example like the famous Seven Swords of Kiri, but that's insane because none of them would let me touch a weapon as good as that, and I'm sure that I can-" she only cut off her tirade because she ran out of air. Her pink deepened to a full blush as she took in our amused faces. She took in a deep breath, probably to apologize, but I decided to take pity on the poor teenager.

"Sure!" I held out my hand with my index finger extended, and with a pulse of chakra summoned one of the twin chakrams balanced perfectly on my fingertip. I lowered my hand so Tenten could take it; she did so with wide eyed reverence. She spent a few seconds just drinking in the sight of it, before her hands started tracing its shape. She tested its tensile strength by trying to bend it with her hands and then raised it to her mouth to bite into it, similar to how Zabuza had so; and just like Zabuza, her reaction was wide-eyed incredulity.

"Wh-what is this made of?" Her voice was a hush, in stark contrast to her motor mouth syndrome from a few minutes ago.

"Chakra metal; apparently the best stock in Kiri's armoury." I couldn't help but grin at the reaction of both Tenten and Asuma, it never got old.

Seeing Asuma's frank interest, I summoned and tossed the other one to him. His cigarette automatically shifted to the side of his mouth as he started to play with it. He tried to channel a small amount of chakra into it, and his eyebrows rose at the ease at which the metal ate the chakra and formed a Fūton-natured exoskeleton.

"What did this cost you?" He asked, clearly impressed.

"Two years of my life," I answered. "And-" I cut myself off from saying my relationship with Anko, but he didn't miss the way my eyes flicked towards the place where she had left the clearing.

Thankfully, Tenten had missed the byplay. "What process did you use during smelting?"

Despite my slightly bitter feelings towards Anko, I let myself be swept away by Tenten's enthusiasm. That said, she quickly started wearing on my patience. For every question I answered, it seemed like she had three more. I felt somewhat embarrassed by my lack of forging knowledge when she asked me a few deeply technical questions, and I was thankfully rescued by Naruto.

"Nii-chan- er, Kamikaze-sama, I'm hungry! Let's get lunch!" He had insisted on eating every meal with me since I came back, and I didn't have the heart to refuse him.

"Sure thing kiddo." I turned back to Tenten, "Another time then, Tenten-san," I said politely. Tenten transformed from excitable to shy in an instant, as she turned pink again. "Umm… thank you for answering my questions, Nanashi-sensei!"

I nodded my farewell to her and Asuma, and with an offhand gesture dismissed my chakrams from this plane of reality. As Naruto led us out, I looked around and saw a dejected Lee gazing forlornly after a furiously stomping Sakura, her face red with embarrassment as a giggling Ino heckled her. The purple clad girl had convinced Hinata to come with them for a girls lunch, and it looked like it was going to be a rather lively lunch if their expressions were anything to go by. A short distance behind, Gai was loudly proclaiming that he would outdo Kakashi when it was his turn or else he would do something outrageous, while Kakashi ignored him with the long ease of practice.

"What about the rest of your friends?" I asked Naruto. "Why aren't you going with them?"

"Sasuke said he had something to do, Chōji said he wanted barbecue and Shikamaru's going with him, Kiba's mom made his favourite so he's going home for lunch," Naruto rattled off.

"What about Shino?" I asked.

For half a second Naruto looked confused, then his eyes widened. I sighed. "You forgot about him, didn't you?"

"What? No I didn't!" Naruto blatantly lied. "He… er… didn't say anything when I asked so I thought you and I could eat together." Naruto laughed unconvincingly and rubbed the back of his head.

"Right," I said dryly, and I hid a smile under my mask.

That was the point when we were… waylaid. By a box.

Nostalgia threatened to overwhelm me as I awaited the inevitable explosion. It had been a literal age since I had seen Konohamaru, and the last time I had seen him… well. No point reliving nightmares.

"Friends of yours?" I asked Naruto.

Naruto looked slightly guilty as he looked at the box. "Um, yeah. I haven't seen them in a while."

"As expected of my rival! You saw through our disguise!" A child's high pitched voice echoed from inside the box, and I bit my lip to strangle the laugh that came when I realized that Gai had said the exact same thing not half an hour earlier.

The box then exploded, as expected, with far too much smoke billowing out. Three sets of coughing sounds came from the smoking location of the former box. "We used too much gunpowder again."

Once the smoke and coughing cleared we were treated to the sight of three kids on their knees as they gasped for breath. Konohamaru, with his trademark scarf, looked tiny; I could have seated him in the palm of one hand and had room left over.

Once they caught their breath, the three of them straightened. Konohamaru dramatically pointed a finger at Naruto, while Udon and Moegi gave him disapproving looks. "Oyabun! You don't play ninja with us anymore! What gives?!"

I tilted my head. "Oyabun? You have minions?"

"Hehehe… yeah!" Naruto exclaimed.

"We're not minions 'kore! We thought Naruto-nii-chan was cool cause he played with us, but he's become just as boring as a grown up!" Konohamaru declared as he folded his arms.

Naruto deflated. "I'm sorry! I was out of the village on a mission and I just got back!"

Moegi crossed her arms in solidarity with Konohamaru. "Naruto-nii-chan meanie!"

Naruto deflated further. "I got out of another training session just now! I have to go back after lunch!"

Udon was the only one who didn't immediately jump on the Naruto bashing bandwagon. "Umm… guys, I think he really is sorry…"

Konohamaru and Moegi let out adorable 'hmph's in unison, and Naruto slumped to the floor.

"Tsk… first rule of having minions, always keep them happy," I lectured Naruto, a smile in my voice.

"Ah! That's right! Who are you?!" It was my turn to be dramatically pointed at by Konohamaru.

"This is Nanashi-nii-chan! He's the best! He's stronger than Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto chirped, his depression seemingly forgotten.

"Is that so?" Konohamaru asked disbelievingly. "How do you know he's not lying?"

"Hmm…" I cupped my right elbow with my left palm as I drummed my fingers on my cheek; and just above my head, the symbol of Konoha formed out of the floating dust particles in the air.

"Whoa…" the three academy kids breathed out in wide-eyed unison. Naruto grinned smugly. "Told you!"

"You also didn't tell them my proper name," I said to Naruto pointedly.

"Sorry! He's so strong that they named him Kamikaze in the bingo book!"


I drank in the adulation of the children; there exists no finer sustenance for one's ego.

"How did you get to be so strong?" Moegi asked, her hands clasped in front of her.

"Lots of hard work and eating my vegetables," I answered, and grinned at the grimaces it gave me.

"Are you going to become Hokage?" Konohamaru asked.

"Nah, what kind of brother would I be if I took Naruto's dream away?" I ignored the ping that went through me at that question.

"Then what are you going to do since you're so strong?" Udon asked me.

"Hmm… maybe find some minions of my own," I said thoughtfully. Well, I couldn't exactly tell them the truth now, could I?

"What would someone as strong as you even do with minions?" Konohamaru demanded.

A slow grin overtook my features. "Well…"

A few minutes later, Naruto and I faced each other on the street, and my head was covered with a bandana. I cleared my throat loudly, "And… action!"

Naruto ignored his cue and grumbled out, "Why do I have to play the bad guy?"

"Ahem!" I gestured at him. He sighed loudly, then theatrically pointed at me. "Stop! Hand over your valuables if you value your life!"

"Is that so?" I struck a pose as I whipped off the bandana, and Naruto gasped theatrically. "Oh no! It's Kamikaze! I'm just a poor bandit! Have mercy on me!"

"Very well," I said magnanimously. "I will not attack you."

The bandit Naruto's eyes widened. "So does that mean you'll let me go?"

I grinned at him, "No."

"But you just said you won't attack me!"

"For someone as weak as you, my minions will be enough."

And then a smoke bomb went off in the alley next to the street we were on. A moment later, the smoke blew back with a gust of wind, and it also caused Konohamaru's scarf and Moegi's hair to fly back dramatically. They looked… well, not cool, they were a bunch of kids playing pretend, but they certainly felt cool, which was the whole point.

Naruto once again gasped theatrically. "Oh no! Kamikaze's minions!"

"Today is the day you rue your crimes!" Konohamaru pointed at Naruto, and then he, along with Moegi and Udon, pulled out wooden training shurikens and pelted Naruto with them.

Naruto shrieked and wailed as he was struck by them, and the kids then bum-rushed him. After trading a few pulled punches, Naruto pretended to stumble and was promptly dog-piled. A few seconds later, the victorious minions started jumping and yelling in celebration of their victory over the evil bandit.

The commotion, however, attracted the attention of a certain closet pervert. "There you are, young master! I've been looking all over for you! Lunch is nearly over, we must hurry back!" Ebisu then spied Naruto, as he got up from his prone position. "You," Ebisu sneered.

"Hello, closet pervert!" Naruto replied cheerfully, with a grin that widened as the three children giggled naughtily.

I hadn't needed to handle Ebisu after that first day when I kicked his ass, as had Naruto, but I backed him up anyway. I sent a cold smile Ebisu's way as I put my hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Good afternoon."

Ebisu looked flustered. "Er, good afternoon. I'm Ebisu, the elite tutor for the Honorable Grandson. May I ask for your name?"

"I'm Nanashi, the adoptive older brother of Konoha's future Hokage," I shifted my hand on Naruto's shoulder to emphasize my point. Naruto's grin widened further.

Ebisu shifted awkwardly. "It's very nice to meet you. Unfortunately, I must cut this meeting short. Lunch is almost over and we cannot be late."

I shrugged, "Sure." My smile turned warm as I looked down at my former minions, "Before we leave, say thank you to Naruto for playing the bad guy today."

Naruto looked taken aback at the chorus of 'Thank you's, and was surprised when Moegi skipped forward to give him a hug, but very pleased. With a chorus of 'Bye Kamikaze-nii-chan', Ebisu herded them away.

Naruto and I started heading to Ichiraku's by mutual consent. "They're nice kids. How did you meet them?"

Naruto immediately launched into the tale of how he had run into Konohamaru at the Hokage's office, and I smiled nostalgically at it. As we pulled open the flap of Ichiraku's, I noticed Teuchi twitch as he saw me, no doubt reminded of my ramengasm the other day, but he didn't object to my presence. I hid a grin behind my mask.

Naruto continued the story energetically throughout lunch, and just about finished the Tale of the Closet Pervert and the Harem Jutsu when he realized he was going to be late for his afternoon training session and rushed out.

I paid up and went back to my apartment to take a nap. Since I was going to be in the village for the near future, until the Chūnin exams were over, I had signed up for guard duty on the walls. No point sitting idle.

Once I woke up from my nap, I got freshened up. It was still early evening, and I debated going early for my late evening shift at the wall, when my doorbell rang. I opened the door to find literally the last person I expected on the other side. I blinked in surprise.

"Come in," I said after a moment. My guest followed me into the kitchen and took a seat at the table at my gesture, as I put the kettle on.

While the water boiled, my thoughts were muted, blank. I honestly didn't know what to say or do, as I waited for the right moment to add the tea leaves to the boiling water.

Once the leaves had been added, and the tea brewed as Hinata had once showed me, I took it off the stove and poured two cups. Both my guest and I took a long sip at the same time, and then I waited for him to speak.

It took him a few moments to gather his thoughts. "I heard what you said to Sakura, on our way back from Wave, about shinobi exchanging techniques."

I inclined my head in acknowledgement, unsure where this was headed. It took him another sip before he was able to continue his thought process. "I have… The Uchiha clan has a large library of various techniques. Some of them are very powerful."

Sasuke's presence at my house finally clicked. The blankness in my mind was replaced by a gathering storm. I deliberately kept my breathing steady and my muscles loose as I said neutrally, "I see."

Sasuke hunched over the tea cup. "I have to… I need to get stronger. To defeat that man," he all but spat, his chest heaving.

I stayed quiet as I watched him, and I kept a lid on my rising fury.

Sasuke finally met my eyes. "I need someone to train me. Running D-ranks is not going to help me achieve my goals. You're quite powerful, and given how much you helped Naruto become stronger, I'm willing to bet you can help me do the same. And in return, you can have your pick of the Uchiha clan library."

I took a sip of my own tea as Sasuke stared expectantly at me.

"I refuse."

For a moment, Sasuke didn't react. He then blinked in confusion, as if he couldn't parse the words I had said. Finally, he frowned. "Why?" He asked, an audible note of confusion in his voice.

I felt the tight grip I had on my murderous feelings start to fray. My breathing started to speed up as I kept my gaze locked on Sasuke, as Terūmi Hayato's words about conflict rang in my skull. "Mangekyõ Sharingan," I answered levelly.

Sasuke reacted as if I had slapped him, as he leaned back in shock and horror.

I continued, as my unblinking gaze bore into Sasuke. "The requirement for unlocking the next evolution of the Sharingan is the murder of your best friend. Which, as things are shaping up, looks to be Naruto. So you'll forgive me if I don't want to train the mentally unstable ninja who could murder my little brother for a convenient power-up."

The blood had left Sasuke's face entirely, making it look even more pale in the dimming sunlight. But I wasn't done. I leaned forward threateningly. "Let me make it very clear. If I think, for a single second, that you're even considering gaining the Mangekyõ, if you take one step out of line," I let out a concentrated burst of killing intent as the bottom halves of the fucking bangs that framed his face fell off.

Sasuke threw himself back in fright, not that it would help if I decided to decapitate him.

I still hadn't blinked as I glared at him. "Understand?" I asked, my voice gravelly.

Sasuke let out a single, shaky nod. I stopped hiding my rage and disgust with the piece of shit in front of me, and my teacup shattered in my hand. "Get out."

Sasuke fled.

I took a deep breath. It didn't help. I took another. Then I blasted the teacup that Sasuke had used across the kitchen. It shattered like I wish I could have shattered Sasuke's fucking face.

All told, it took me fifteen minutes to calm down. By the time I finished cleaning up, it was time to leave for my shift. I stomped my way to the gates to pick up my assignment, but my foul mood didn't abate.

Mizukage's Office, Kirigakure: Terūmi Mei

"-so the farmers are about to implement the new crop rotation," Megumi finished up her report.

Mei smiled. "That's good news. Hopefully the land will recover quickly from the over-cultivation that the Yondaime had ordered." She leaned back and let out a sigh.

Megumi then tilted her head. "Do you still have work to do, Mei-sama?"

Mei looked out the window to see a complete lack of light, and then at the comically full inbox on her table. "Nothing that won't keep till tomorrow," she said with a grimace as she pushed the offending box away.

Megumi grinned and came around the table, and hopped up on the corner close to Mei. Mei raised an eyebrow at her presumptiveness, but Megumi was undeterred. "So, how's it going with the blond wonder? Will he be joining Kiri?"

Mei considered Megumi for a moment. While they had run the Resistance together, their relationship could be described as trustworthy colleagues and friendly acquaintances, but not friends.

It was true, however, that she needed to show a human side of herself to some of her subordinates. One of Yagura's many failings was that he allowed himself to be perceived as an unfeeling monster, and Mei was not willing to follow his example. She knew how rumors got started, and to that end, she wanted present the right kind of image to her subordinates. A part of that was to allow her closest Jõnin to set the narrative. And that could only be achieved by opening up to them.

Megumi was the best choice for this, even though she would have preferred Katagiri. Unfortunately, she hadn't seen the svelte one-eyed blonde ever since she took office. Katagiri preferred to take her mission assignments from the office and submit written reports. Mei was disappointed that she couldn't continue to play games with her former friend.

Mei leaned back in her cushioned green chair and gave a slightly theatrical sigh at Megumi's query. "He seems to have left me high and dry."

Megumi clucked her tongue disapprovingly. "And you put all that work into him too."

Mei smiled at the show of solidarity, but her smile turned rueful. "I couldn't bring myself to ask him to stay," she admitted.

Megumi raised an eyebrow. "Courage isn't something you lack, Mei-sama. Is there some other reason?"

Mei's smile turned genuine. Maybe Megumi would be a better friend than Katagiri after all. "What's rule number one?" She asked her fellow graduate of the Kiri Seduction Corps.

"The target is a mark," Megumi said instantly. Mei smiled ruefully, and Megumi's eyes widened. "You didn't! Mei-sama!"

"I don't know when it happened, or how, but he… got under my skin," she finished with a hint of pink in her cheeks.

"And does he feel the same way?"

Mei's expression could best be summed up as, 'Bitch, please', but Megumi wasn't deterred. "Well, you did forget rule number one."

Mei grimaced. "Fair enough."

Megumi looked consideringly at her superior. "That should have made his decision to stay even easier."

Mei looked out the window, at the mists which had more or less returned after her stormy lover had torn them away. "He… has a mission. Larger than the one he completed here." Mei couldn't exactly tell her subordinates that she believed peace was possible; she would be laughed out of office. "If he stayed here, he wouldn't be able to complete it. And then he wouldn't be the same man anymore."

Megumi looked at her silently for a long moment. "He really did get under your skin," she finally murmured.

Mei couldn't have stopped the blush if she tried.

And then, as if by divine providence, the scroll Nanashi had given her for long distance communication rattled in her drawer. She withdrew it and quickly took in the contents. She couldn't help her smile as she showed the contents to a curious Megumi.

Megumi went through it quickly and raised her eyebrows. "Well, well, well," she murmured.

Mei smiled happily.

Author's Notes: It's still December 2017 right? Right. And I haven't undergone another major depressive episode, triggered by yet another major let down by someone I was supposed to count on. I totally learned to rely on just myself, all by myself.

Enough of the pity party. At the outset of this story I swore on my dream as a writer that I would finish it, and by the Log I'm going to finish this no matter how long it takes, as well as the other plots I have jumping around in my head.

If any of you old fans are still out there, Happy New Year! Let's hope 2022 is the year of our lives.

P.S. - Thanks to Glacious and NXSE for the beta work!