She lied to the Hokage.

She lied to the Hokage.

Kurenai exhaled heavily and dropped her head into her hands. She'd only just become a jounin and this was the first thing she decided to do—lie. To the Hokage.

Falling back on her bed, she let her arms fall away as she gazed up at the ceiling. There wasn't much she could do about it now. She made her decision, gambled her luck on the strange kid who was beating the system, and was about to push her new team into heights of true shinobi. While it all had a chance of being a lapse in judgment and she might have very well sentenced herself to a life full of dodging the council for the sake of three twelve year olds, there were some key decisions she still had to make.

Like what type of team she would be cultivating, for one.

Kurenai picked a few she crossed out immediately: Analysis, Cipher/Cryptology, Sensor, Logistical Support, and Sealing. Analysis and Cipher/Cryptology teams were village-based and spent most of their time in book filled rooms puzzling out problem sheets. She might not know what her team would become when they grew into their full capabilities, but she doubted they would appreciate an off-the-field career—meaning that being in the Research Division was also scratched through.

They also couldn't be sensors because they hadn't the innate skill, and although they could learn, their technique wouldn't be as potent as someone who had the natural ability. Logistical Support fell as another category of Research, so that was out of the window as well. Then there was Sealing, which wasn't technically a branch of Research, but it held much of the same properties and required an intensive study of the nature of chakra and seal creation methods that she wasn't sure the whole team would be willing to grasp.

A Honey Pot team was out of the equation. There were extremely few occasions where a genin team rose to become one and, she could state with clarity, that her team was not one of those instances. The next type that came into deliberation was a Medical team. Maybe one of them could take up healing for the sheer benefit of having such a means to rely on, but she still wasn't sure if they could even summon healing chakra and there was a near zero chance of all three being able to do so, so that struck out Medical.

Kurenai tapped her finger against her chin. They wouldn't be a Torture/Interrogation team either since their abilities were ill-suited for such a job, and that most likely meant they wouldn't flourish nicely under the general umbrella of the Intelligence Division, like with Strategy and Tactics. Her team also wouldn't do too well in types of Defense teams considering their prowess leaned towards the offense side, so that was ruled out along with the Barrier and Escort teams. And even if she did say that they leaned towards offense, they weren't inclined to become a full Offensive team due to the nature of Shino's insects, Sakura's disposition towards genjutsu, and Kiba's inherent utilization of hit-and-run tactics.

They could be a part of the Local Investigation teams. Ever since the demise of the Uchiha, the Military Police Force had disappeared completely, leaving their duties shelved on top of the village to dish out, but there were already quite a few squads created in a place of what was lost and Kurenai didn't want her students' potential used on petty crimes like theft and vandalism.

That left five main teams: Infiltration/Reconnaissance, Rescue/Capture, Tracking, Sabotage, or Surprise Attack/Diversion. She supposed she could remove Surprise Attack/Diversion and Sabotage from the list as pranksters (or those with a rather dubious reputation or mischievous streak) from the Academy normally took up the help with their ingenious ideas and seemingly endless ways of avoiding apprehension. The closest one to a prankster was Kiba, but the only thing he'd gotten in trouble for were dismal grades and absences—not to say the three of them couldn't ban together and do it, but it didn't look like their style.

Or, was it? Kurenai had only known them for the better of two days thus far and she could only make assumptions on a shaky foundation at best. But she managed to narrow her list down to three team types: Infiltration/Reconnaissance, Rescue/Capture, and Tracking.

She pulled herself up from her bed and left her room to ready herself for the day.

For now, all she had to do was observe.

::

When Sakura stepped onto the training field to meet with Kurenai before all her other teammates did, she expected a lot of things to be said.

"I didn't inform Hokage-sama."

But that was not one of them.

"You didn't inform Hokage-sama," she repeated in surprise. "Why? I mean, not that I'm ungrateful or anything, but it was clear that this was something that needed the attention of a higher authority."

Kurenai pursed her lips. "It is. And I'm the highest authority that's going to know about it."

Sakura tried to mute her surprise as best she could during the time she waited for the rest of the team to show up. Shino appeared shortly after with his hands tucked in the pockets of his green jacket, and then came Kiba with a wide yawn and Akamaru trailing happily at his side.

Training that day was as monotonous as the day before, unsurprisingly. Kurenai did say that the next few weeks would be a glorified physical education class before they started molding chakra or working on their elemental natures. For the next seven hours, she directed the three of them through a series of running, push ups, and all sorts of different work outs and obstacle courses that had them sprawled out across the training grounds while unsuccessfully trying to catch their breath in their sweat-soaked clothes.

"Are the other team training sessions as... intense... as ours?" Shino questioned through gulps of air. His brown hair had clumps of dirt and grass matted throughout, and it was only recently he realized why his teacher insisted they bring a towel and a change of clothes with them along with their lunch and supplies. "Why I'm asking? I'm not complaining, but merely curious."

Kurenai scrutinized him for a brief moment before smiling. "No, I don't believe the other teams are being made to train as hard as you all are. If I had to pick a team that's pushed to the extremes like yourselves, it'd be Maito Gai's."

Kiba's brows furrowed in visible confusion as Sakura wiped her forehead with one of her black arm warmers. "Maito Gai, the taijutsu specialist who likes to run on about youth. We've come across him once or twice."

"We have?" asked Kiba. He turned his head from his spot on the grass to look at her.

"You've said enough about him to know him."

He sputtered. "Oh shi—the crazy guy that walks around on his hands with his mini-me? That's Maito Gai?!"

"He may be, er, eccentric at times, but he's a very good sensei. He wouldn't allow his students to take part in the Chuunin Exams last year so they'd train up even harder for this year. You might come across them," Kurenai said. She glanced to the side in thought. But even if her training sessions shone with Gai's vigor, she wasn't going to wait as long as he was.

She shook her head and refocused her attention. "Good work today, Shino, Kiba, Sakura. We'll pick it up again tomorrow and with this pace, we'll have our first mission by the end of next week."

"Yes, sensei," they chorused. She beamed at them and said her goodbyes before heading off, leaving her students to take their break before going off on their own. It was only when she was completely out of earshot did Shino decide to speak up.

"Kurenai-sensei said 'you might come across them' like we'd have a chance of meeting Maito-san's team," he noted. He stood and brushed some dirt from the top of his head, his aching muscles whining in protest.

Sakura was quick to pick up on his implication. "It's too early to consider us for the Chuunin Exams. She's only had us for three days and she still has five months to decide."

"Five months to decide, yes, but according to the general surveillance of current Konoha genin teams, rookies rarely get nominated and rarely train this hard in the beginning stages. Perhaps she wanted to push us to cultivate our skills more thoroughly if we compete. No one else from our graduating class has started such a grueling regime."

She quirked an eyebrow. "And you know this, how?"

A few black bugs trickled out of his collar in his teammates' plain view. "When I mentioned general surveillance, I meant reference to myself."

Because it was stupid to start their careers blind even though they were only genin. When Shino was still an Academy student, he never willingly answered questions or spoke to his classmates. He'd sit at his desk and complete his work without issue, but it wasn't as if he was about to sit there and allow himself to grow bored. He sat, he worked, he observed.

Sometimes he let his insects loose through the school to sit through upper year lectures and had them relay important points he had to study on at a later date. Or he had them sit near other students to eavesdrop on conversations and cherrypicked what others called "juicy" information for short-lived amusement because he honestly couldn't care less. Even then, sometimes he wouldn't send out his insects—he would just sit back in his chair during study hour and listened.

It was amazing how some people said things they shouldn't in a public environment.

Shino blinked as Sakura's lips pulled up into an almost feral grin and Kiba dropped his head in his hands, muttering about there being 'another one'.

"Spying on other Konoha shinobi? You can get in a lot of trouble for it, and I thought you would trust them," Sakura mused. He leveled her with a considering gaze.

"Trust is a strong word," he said. "After witnessing your hidden proficiency first hand a few days ago, I found an even greater reason not to take things at face value. Besides, I wouldn't allow myself to get in trouble. Only an idiot would get caught." Kiba's jaw dropped. "Speaking of which, would you be so inclined to explain what exactly you're capable of?"

Kiba looked back and forth between the two.

If it were possible, her grin stretched wider. "I'll trade you for an account of your spying."

Shino wanted to refute her on the use the word spying because it wasn't and he was simply being resourceful but—

He nodded once. "Deal."

Kiba was simply bewildered. "You know, I feel like I just watched two devils come to an understanding and I don't know how to feel about it."

"Right," Sakura snorted before looking at them both. "Do you think your parents would mind if you guys had dinner at my place tonight?"

"My father has clan business to attend to and won't be back until late, so I will be available," Shino replied. Kiba finally popped up to his feet and slung his bag over his shoulder.

"And you know my mom won't mind if I'm with you," he grinned. "But Akamaru and I can use your shower, right? No way I'm sitting in a puddle of my own sweat the rest of the day. The smell's rank as hell."

"Sure. You too, Shino. But we're stopping at the store first."

The four of them walked off the field in idle chatter, Akamaru cheerfully barking on occasion, unaware of the new sense of camaraderie that was beginning to blossom beneath their feet.

That, and the pair of hidden eyes that watched them go.

::

A light in the kitchen flickered above his head and Kisame quickly stashed a mental note to go into town to buy another bulb. In front of him, the stove's blue fire swayed beneath the slowly heating pot as its watcher stewed in his own dour aura.

Recently, he and his partner received their tailed beast assignment: Uzumaki Naruto, host of the Kyuubi: a fiery orange fox entity with nine tails. It was supposedly the strongest of the beasts and the hardest one to obtain, but that wasn't even remotely close to what had been bothering him since stepping out of Leader's office.

Uzumaki Naruto was twelve years old.

And the mere thought made him sick to his stomach.

Couldn't they just wait until he was a little older until they started his pursuit? There was nothing wrong with waiting for him to live—to grow up. Every child deserved at least that much, especially one who'd been marked and targeted ever since he was a baby. Kisame didn't even agree with the reason for collecting the tailed beasts in the first place but he stayed and stuck with it because he had no damn choice, but with this...

... couldn't he even have a say in this? Couldn't he, the bloodthirsty Monster of the Mist, even make a choice of who he wanted to kill?

The light flickered again.

"Kisame-san."

He raised his head and acknowledged the new presence in the kitchen. "Itachi-san. Need something?"

"I wanted to review our new assignment, if that's feasible," Itachi said. He eyed the open file on the table before moving to the pronounced frown on his partner's face. "Have you found something unsatisfactory?"

Kisame's frown deepened as he regarded the younger man. "I don't have any business killin' kids." Itachi found himself staring in surprise. "We're taking him back here the easy way. No blood, no broken bones, no nothin'."

"... We're still in the observational stages and are most likely to make contact after the next Chuunin Exams. It's still a ways away."

"Still—I'm stickin' by this 'till the day I keel over. I. Don't. Kill. Kids. Got it?"

Flickering.

Itachi tilted his head in acquiesce. "Of course."

Kisame relaxed a bit and turned back to the stove. Behind him, Itachi blankly stared at the back of his head with a million thoughts brushing past his eyes until they ultimately settled on his beloved baby brother.

He wished he could say he wouldn't kill kids either, but Sasuke wasn't the only child in the compound that night. There were at least twenty others all bright and kind and with a life that they thought they could look forward to. But because of him, they'd never get that, and the only he could do for them was make their end quick and painless.

Itachi dropped his gaze to the file on the table, allowing the surge of respect at the fact that Kisame was a far better man than he'd ever be.

And above him, the light flickered.

::

Kiba was, once again, flabbergasted.

When Sakura said they'd have to make a trip to the store before going to her apartment, he had no qualms against it. Their first team dinner was an impromptu decision, she probably wasn't expecting company that night, and they agreed it would be fair to split the cost between the three of them. He also expected them to be in and out pretty quick since his mom and sister shopped by chucking whatever they vaguely needed in a cart.

But of course Sakura wasn't doing that. She looked at every label—every price—and determined the route of best interest at the speed of a goddamn calculator.

He whistled. "Holy shit. No wonder you're so good at math if you're doing this all the time. How do you even know the inflation and deflation of prices from three weeks ago?!"

"I read."

"Read what? The old lady section in the newspaper?"

Sakura broke her gaze from studying the produce section to reach into her bag and pulled out a decent bundle of paper clippings bound together with a rubber band. "Where else am I going to find these coupons?"

A small, amused sound echoed from the back of Shino's throat, but he otherwise spoke nothing else. She did just finish walking them through the basic machinations of spending, sales, and deals, so he would've been more stunned if she hadn't brought out a stack of coupons as tall as a deck of cards.

"Damn," muttered Kiba. "This is exactly like the time you broke into the teacher's desk and stole my grades just to prove a point."

"You broke into the teacher's desk?" Shino questioned, incredulity underlying his bland tone.

"When I first came to the school. Picked the lock," she replied as she waved it off and turned back to the produce. "Now, do you guys want bitter melon, string beans, or cabbage as our dinner's main vegetable? These are the only three whose prices moved in a reasonable three cent margin compared to last month."

With their consensus on bitter melon and eventually pork as their meat, they managed to quickly pick out the necessary ingredients for bitter melon salad, baked pork cutlet, and tofu and mushroom soup.

"Knowing your way around the market is..." Shino trailed off thoughtfully as they stepped in the cashier line. Sakura cocked a brow.

"A weird skill?" she supplied.

"More... a practical skill, I should say. Practical like the phasmatodea insect family camouflaging themselves as sticks to avoid predation."

A comment like that would've earned him strange looks and the avoidance of other students back at the Academy, which he was unfortunately used to. But to his unending surprise, Sakura adopted a smug sort of expression and clapped him on the shoulder while Kiba appeared struck, again muttering something along the lines of 'there really are two of them'.

"Ignore him," she dismissed, flashing Shino a reassuring smile as a pout was shot in her direction. "Some people can't appreciate practicality. So what were you saying? About the phasmatodea?"

He blinked. No one at the Academy cared about his interest in entomology. Then again, he didn't really have friends to inquire about his hobbies. His eyebrows furrowed as he looked at her the same way he would if he were studying a new insect. "You... want to know? You don't find, what others call it—ah, 'creepy'?"

"Why would it be creepy?" It was Kiba who answered that time, and they all took a step forward as the line moved. It sent the Aburame through another succession of blinks. "If that's what everyone else says, don't listen. They can be a buncha assholes. I mean, you've got us now, right? You don't gotta worry about stuff like that anymore."

A small, indescribable warmth flushed through Shino's chest. He didn't know what it was, but it made him smile behind his collar as he nodded and began talking about the anatomical properties of the stick bug.

::

Day three and the surprises kept coming. Her team was coming together rather nicely, but once again, in a way she never expected.

Sakura's misleadings had stunned her to a great extent, but so had Shino's admission to spying on the other teams in order to gather information. The Aburame were one of the four noble clans and were some of the most reclusive people one could ever meet, yet it had taken three days to click into a strange friendship with the rest of his teammates.

Kurenai gazed out the window of her living room, a scroll unraveled in her lap and her hair tied up in a loose ponytail. She supposed she could remove Tracking from her list of team types, leaving Infiltration/Reconnaissance and Rescue/Capture. They certainly had the skills to become trackers, especially with the Aburames' insects and the Inuzukas' scent tracing, but there was something more to them than just picking a trail and following an adversary.

Of course, trackers were shinobi through every inch of their skin, but there was just something about her three students. No one picked up on the secrets lurking under their facades and, just like Sakura said, the only thing they were judged on were based on superficial analyses.

But why?

Then her eyes widened slightly as street lights glimmered in the dark.

Because sometimes, children were so underestimated that adults can't see past their own preconceptions.

And Sakura played right into that belief to use it to her advantage, Shino doing so inadvertently.

It made Kurenai wonder if there was something about Kiba the files hadn't noticed either.

::

Sakura's apartment was small, plain, and without a hint of personal touch. Granted, she'd only been living here for two days, but the place looked like it hadn't even been remotely lived in. There was one bedroom, one bathroom, a small laundry room, and the room that cozily fit a kitchenette, a plastic table, and four folding chairs. It wasn't much, but it was enough for one person to live in.

"I'm going to shower first," she announced as she walked down the narrow hall. "Prep the food, don't start without me, don't break anything."

Kiba called back. "Like there's anything to break!"

"If I find the fridge upturned, I'm stuffing your body inside and throwing it out the window!"

At Shino's amused look, Kiba grinned. "Don't worry, there's only a small chance she'd do something like that. Like, a 20/80 chance." He shucked off his grime-stained jacket and left it near the entrance where it couldn't dirty anything else. His torso armor came off with a few clicks and was dropped on top of the jacket, leaving him in his fishnet shirt as he walked over to the sink to wash his hands. "Go ahead and chuck your jacket in the pile too. I don't mind."

Shino stalled for a moment before he complied and unzipped his sea green coat. He wore a black 3/4 sleeved shirt underneath that was still soaked with sweat, which he noted with a nose crinkle in distaste. As he went to wash his hands in following, he looked at Kiba with light curiosity behind his dark lenses. "There is something I've been wondering about for a while. You and Sakura-san were gone nearly half the year of every year throughout your Academy career. Were you not concerned with the curriculum?"

"Sakura was already way ahead and I don't do that good in class."

Shino pushed up his glasses and began washing the vegetables. "If you weren't doing well in class, how did you get your grades up?"

"Oh, she tutored me too. Er, she's easier to understand, doesn't rush things, and makes sure I know how to do something before moving on," Kiba admitted with a sheepish grin. As he turned around to start up the rice cooker, he missed the way the other stiffened in realization.

To him, Kiba had always been a trouble student because he never showed up, never did the work, and certainly never curbed the attitude that landed him in quite a few detentions. Ashamed of his former thinking, Shino knew now that his reasoning certainly wasn't the case. Kiba would've done fine if he'd been given more help. Or, maybe the teachers found him to be a lost cause and didn't bother to spend the extra time on him because of being labeled a 'problem child'—much like he did until about an hour ago.

Guilt pooled into the pit of his stomach.

Sakura walked in with her hair down and damp as it brushed against the sleeves of her red t-shirt. She set a laundry basket down on the ground. "Drop your stuff in here to wash if you don't mind me throwing all our stuff in at the same time. Who's next?"

Kiba nudged Shino towards the bathroom saying he could wait his own turn before ambling back into the kitchen and starting to fry panko crumbs on the stove. "So, you plan on letting him in on all your skills?"

"I might as well," sighed Sakura. She picked up a knife and twirled it in her hand before she set to slicing the bitter melon. She was thinking of making thin strips of it and rubbing some salt to let some of its bitterness drain out, but she'd have to ask Shino his preferences when he got back. "We're a team now and nothing good will come out of hiding things that can save each other's lives. Do you think we can come up with some team dynamic that implements deception?"

Akamaru barked from his spot curled near the fridge and Kiba translated with a snort. "He said of course you can. If you're both devil incarnates he'll agree to something like this." With the panko crisped and off the stove, he left it to air on a plate. Then he began covering the pork cutlets in flour, whisked eggs, and the cooling crumbs.

"Doesn't that make you two devils' advocates?"

He grave her an exasperated look and a playful shove, but didn't deny it. He was in too deep now anyway, so what's the point of fighting against it? Crazy was crazy and if he was sinking into that hell, he could only hope he could pick his own flowers for his funeral.

Shino came out of the bathroom and took the time to place his neatly folded dirty clothes back into his bag. He didn't know Sakura well enough to have a shared laundry load and he certainly didn't want to impose. Kiba, on the other hand, plucked his jacket off the ground and tossed it in the basket before he and Akamaru took off to the bathroom.

"Five years of friendship left little reservation between us," Sakura explained when the heard the bathroom door shut. "Inuzukas are exuberant and open and I never had the social tact to care." She popped the tray of pork cutlets into the oven, set a pot on the stove to start the tofu and mushroom soup, and found out that Shino liked his bitter melon a little less bitter, so started a salt wash.

The latter, now dressed in another pair of brown pants and a gray long-sleeved shirt, tilted his head in her direction. "Pardon my offense, but I do find both you and Kiba to be exceedingly strange."

Sakura quirked up an eyebrow and the corner of her lips pulled up into a small smile. "No offense taken? I guess that's fair. Does it bother you?"

"Not at all. I just... hadn't expected anything that's happened. I was prepared for teammates and cordial meetings." He pointedly avoided meeting her eyes and instead stared at the boiling pot. "I... did not anticipate a branch of friendship so quickly. Not many people particularly seek an association with me."

Long ago, he accepted that people didn't get along with him and that he hadn't done a swell job socializing, so he made sure it didn't bother him as much as it used to. After his adoptive brother had been enlisted in that 'program' all those years ago, the only person he talked to nowadays was—

"My father was my only friend."

Shino's head snapped to the left. That sentence surely hadn't come out of his mouth, but his thoughts were treading on that shaky territory and he never spoke his concerns aloud even when musing to himself. So it must've been Sakura—which it was, and she'd said it with a wistful look on her face.

"I lived in Ame," she said. "The people definitely weren't as nice as they are here. My father knew that, so I spent most of my time alone or with him. Sometimes he'd leave me with his coworkers, but he hated how much they let me get hurt."

Shino reflected on her mangled left ear and the deep scar she bore on her right shoulder.

After salt washing the bitter melon, she set it aside and attended to the soup. "Kiba was my first friend when I came here. When you look at us, I guess you could say we're not good at making friends either. He approached me first and the rest is history. I didn't even think of making another friend until we were assigned teams." Sakura met his gaze, her green eyes bright and deep against her pale but steadily tanning skin. "We're going to be around each other a lot. I'm not going to spend my time trying to 'figure you out' or anything like that. I know you're not a douchebag, so that's enough for me."

He made another one of those amused noises. Fair enough.

"Now that I've gotten to know you a little bit though, I genuinely like you. I don't know if you feel the same with Kiba and I, but it's best to get along, yeah?" She stuck out a hand. Shino carefully inspected the appendage.

"As I said before, you're both exceedingly strange. With the knowledge I have now, perhaps you more so than Kiba," he said. He took her hand in his own and shook. "But I seem to genuinely like you too, oddness aside. Your hair is the same color as the desmoxytes purpurosea."

Sakura laughed. "I'll take that as a compliment."

Kiba and Akamaru reappeared a few minutes later, the former dumping the rest of his clothes in the laundry basket before helping set the table, plating the food, and sitting in the chair nearest to the fridge to Sakura's right. She sat at the head of the table with Shino to her immediate left; the three of them formed an impressive triangle as they picked up their chopsticks and began to eat their dinner.

"So," Kiba started. He looked back and forth between Sakura and Shino as he stuffed a piece of pork into his mouth. "Who'sh goo-in firs'?"