Author: Kraken's Ghost

Email: On profile.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, nor am I making any money off this work. The only thing I own is the original material. This is non-profit fanfiction.

Summary: See first chapter.

Story so far: Naruto has several interesting encounters, including an unpleasant encounter with an Inuzuka and painful encounter with Iruka. He completes his house and takes Tsunade on a grand tour of the place. Later, he meets up with Jiraiya again and unseals a unit of demon chakra. Afterwards, Tsunade gives him the good news that he's been reinstated on a team…Team 7, to be exact. He passes Kakashi's bell test with a disturbingly powerful variant of the kage bunshin and afterwards says he wants to have a 'chat' with his former teacher.

Chap. 9

"Alright, I guess we can-" Kakashi began, but was cut off by Naruto.

"Not yet. I'd rather discuss this privately," The kitsune sharply replied with a subtle glance towards Ino that the jounin immediately picked up on.

"Okay," The Copy-ninja said with a nod. He looked towards his student and said, "Ino-chan, take the rest of the day off and meet back here regular time tomorrow."

Ino immediately hopped off the wooden post, though she hesitated to leave. Her pretty features wrinkled in a worried frown as she gave her sensei a questioning look.

"Don't worry about it, Yamanaka-san," Naruto spoke up, not having to turn and look at the girl to understand her reluctance. "Neither of us will be fighting again today…At least not physically."

The blonde girl narrowed her eyes at the kitsune for a long moment. Naruto may hold her interest but Kakashi had become a close friend over the past year. The other genin had proved that he could fight the copy-nin to a standstill, at the very least. The fight would be far too close to call if they actually got serious. And Kakashi couldn't bounce back from grievous injuries the way Naruto could. Ino couldn't beat the other teen alone, but her and Kakashi's tag-teaming would be lethal even to him. She was not going to lose her sensei, even if the boy had some sort of grudge against the man.

As her eyes flickered to Kakashi, the jounin gave her a reassuring nod. Though she didn't show it, Ino felt a surge of relief. Kakashi knew his own limits well and didn't have an ego when it came to admitting there were some things he couldn't do. If he was signaling that he didn't need help, then he didn't need any.

"…Alright, I'll see you two tomorrow morning. Stay out of trouble…both of you," Ino said in a firm voice. At the muttered replies, she turned and slowly walked down the path and out of sight through the trees

A long minute of silence passed between former student and teacher, neither seeming eager to begin the conversation. The sky was bright again now that the spray from the water dragon jutsu had finally settled out of the air. The only sound was the occasional rustling of the trees at the edge of the clearing and the light trickling of the muddy water from the crater draining into some of the holes Naruto's clones left behind. It was a nice day out all things considered, though the sky could be purple for all the attention the two shinobi were giving their surroundings.

"So, that clone technique…Did you develop it yourself or did your teacher…give it to you?" Kakashi finally asked.

"I created it. Took me nine months to design and master it," Naruto replied in a neutral tone. His unnerving blue eyes narrowed as he asked, "And by teacher I assume you mean the Kyuubi. It had a hand in it, in a sense, but not as much as you'd think. And none of my teachers have ever given me a technique. They showed it to me and I had to work my ass off to perfect each one. I even had to work to control the Toad summons."

"…I suppose that's true," Kakashi slowly said after a second's consideration. That was a strong character point about Naruto. The jounin decided to change the subject when he said, "Still, your use of the kage bunshin is incredible. Using no seals, creating them in varying positions, and the switching between defense and attack were the work of a genius. You're far better than I gave you credit for, Naruto."

"Genius…Don't insult me," Naruto said with a small sneer. At the Copy-ninjas surprised look he elaborated, "Like I'd want to be associated with that brand of ninja. Genius shinobi are overrated. They fail just as many times and make just as many mistakes as normal ninja. Maybe even more so considering how often they overestimate themselves and underestimate their opponents. You know in the time period between when we became genin and he defected, I won considerably more battles than Sasuke? Being a genius proves nothing. The mind is a tool, same as every other part of a warrior. Just because it's honed more in some people than others doesn't mean it's put to better use. Look at Lee. He made the number one rookie of his year, the great prodigy Hyuuga Neji, look like a pussy during the chuunin exams. Genius? Don't make me laugh."

Behind his mask, Kakashi's jaw dropped. Well, it seemed Naruto had grown up some. This was completely unlike the loud-mouthed fool he had known during the days of the original Team 7. When the hell had he become so damn perceptive?

"I see the Kyuubi taught you more than jutsu," The Copy-ninja said in a strange voice.

Naruto gave the man such a dark look of fury that Kakashi actually blanched a little. He had never seen the teen's face twisted by a look of rage before and it wasn't something he ever wanted to see again. Strange how he had used to think less of Naruto for being a goofy, grinning idiot during the original Team 7, but now that he saw the furious, sharp-witted bo-…young man that he'd become, the copy-nin found himself wishing the old Naruto would come back.

"So that's how you see me? My one redeeming attribute was a fucking demon bound inside my soul?" Naruto literally growled. His pupils elongated for a moment before he restrained his darker urges enough to sarcastically shout, "Uzumaki Naruto! Idiot extraordinaire! He's a waste of time, but don't worry. He's taking care of that nasty little fox problem we've been having lately. He's a pretty pathetic ninja, but at least he can point that demon in the right direction! Don't bother teaching him anything important…Just make sure he stays alive long enough to let that fox out on our enemies. Is that about right, Hatake?"

The baleful way Naruto enunciated Kakashi's surname was completely unlike the teasing, affectionate manner Ino used. The jounin hastily replied, "That's not it at all Naruto."

"Then what is it?" The kitsune immediately retorted. His began a slow pace from side to side, never once taking his eyes off his former sensei. "If I recall correctly, I asked you to train me after the chuunin preliminaries. You said 'no' and went off to train the prodigy instead. Come to think of it, you never really taught me anything of use except tree walking and 'One Thousand Years of Pain.' Sasuke though…he got that, an entire tai-jutsu style you stole from someone else, dedicated one-on-one training, and your personal assassination technique. It's rather obvious how you thought of me compared to him."

"Naruto, that was to prepare him for Gaara!" Kakashi protested. "You saw how powerful that bastard was when he decimated Lee! Not even Sasuke could beat him without enough training."

"You just don't fucking get it, do you? And they call you a genius," Naruto replied in a derisive voice. At the jounin's obvious confusion, he spelled it out, "I didn't care that you trained Sasuke. What bothered me was that you didn't take me along with you and give me the same or at least equivalent training."

"Naruto…I should have, but I couldn't. I wouldn't have had the time to get Sasuke ready for Gaara and train you at the same time," Kakashi replied, trying got explain his reasons.

"And we all saw how effective your training was. I forget…Who was the one that beat Gaara?" Naruto replied in a sarcastic voice.

"Sasuke landed several critical blows-" The Copy-ninja began.

"Sasuke didn't even wind him. Not a single one of his attacks left any lasting damage. Sasuke was beaten before Gaara transformed both arms," The half-demon snapped. "Who. Beat. Gaara?"

"…You did," Kakashi admitted in a defeated tone. The half-demon gave a small, vicious smile at the admittance.

"So, even ignoring the fact that your training wasn't enough anyways, you still didn't take me with you. Hatake, did you really spend every minute of every day looking over Sasuke's shoulder and watching his every move? Of course not. All Sasuke would have to do is record you with the Sharingan and then practice the new jutsu, be it the Chidori or Lee's tai-jutsu. That would've left you plenty of time to show me some new tricks," Naruto coldly stated. "You had to have known that, yet you still chose to foist me off onto someone else…Although perhaps I should thank you. Because of your favoritism, I stumbled across Jiraiya and I've grown far more under him than anyone ever could under you."

Kakashi gritted his teeth. The kitsune's words stung with truth, though he was twisting actual events to some degree in his favor…Or was he? From Naruto's point of view, this outlook was probably perfectly justified.

"Naruto, I'll admit I made some mistakes regarding you and Sasuke, but as you yourself said, it turned out for the best. For what it's worth, I'm sorry," The jounin stated in a controlled voice.

To his surprise, the blonde teen threw his head back and roared in laughter. The copy-nin was pretty sure the kitsune wasn't laughing with him.

"You? Sorry?" Naruto said incredulously. "Saying you're sorry at this point is like throwing a single bucket of water on a building that's already burned down."

Kakashi's eye twitched. Good analogy, dammit.

"Besides," The kitsune continued, "You're not even apologizing for the right reasons."

"And how would you know that?" The Copy-ninja replied, a hint of anger coming into his voice.

Naruto fixed Kakashi with a dead serious stare and calmly said, "Hatake, you aren't sorry you ignored me in favor of Sasuke; you're sorry you wasted your time on a traitor. Tell me honestly, would you ever once think of apologizing to me if Sasuke had stayed in the village and remained your loyal student? Would you even notice me or Sakura if you still had your precious Uchiha prodigy as your star pupil? Would you spend any time training the demon-possessed freak or the perfect chakra-control wimp if you still had the Sharingan endowed genius to focus on? Would you bother to train Ino if you still had the tragic little Uchiha to show off to everyone? It's convenient that you changed your tune only after Sasuke defected."

Kakashi just stared at Naruto. He opened his mouth to speak, realized he couldn't think of a thing to say, and closed it again. What the hell could he say? 'No, you're wrong'? Naruto was…Naruto was dead right. He had just picked apart the reason for his actions over the last two and a half years, from brooding in guilt to taking Ino on as his apprentice. He hadn't been apologizing for ignoring Naruto in favor of Sasuke; he had been sorry for himself that he had wasted all that valuable time on a ninja that turned traitor. It was disturbing that this teen could be so perceptive towards his intentions. Unlike Ino, Naruto didn't have a Bloodline Limit to peek into the jounin's head. If this was the result of training under Jiraiya (and possibly the Kyuubi), then no wonder Naruto hadn't hesitated or looked back when the Sannin offered to take him away from Konoha. The teen was a powerful ninja and very intelligent, regardless of his aversion to the label 'Genius.' Staring at him, Kakashi could only grimace when he realized that not only did he not have a thing to do with Naruto's growth, but it was his neglect that had spawned it.

Tsunade was right. He'd repeated Sandaime's mistake and invested in the wrong ninja. And that was what he was sorry for. Not that he favored Sasuke over Naruto, but that he'd trained a traitor rather than the ninja who remained loyal.

"Well, I never tried to show him off," Kakashi weakly said, trying humor to lighten the situation.

"What do you call showing up late for the Chuunin finals with a dramatic teleport in the middle of the fucking arena in front of a thousand people from all over the entire continent?" Naruto replied in an icy voice that carried the force of a full yell.

The Copy-ninja hid a wince. The genin was not pulling any punches, was he? Though he had been incredibly proud at the time, looking back even he found himself annoying. How Gai and the genins had tolerated his bragging and attitude, he had no idea.

"As I was saying, you deliberately ignored me because you felt I wasn't worth the effort to train. Then you got pissed off when I exceeded your star pupil," Naruto said as he ticked off a point on his fingers. His pacing had relaxed into a lazy prowl rather than the barely repressed violence he'd been radiating minutes ago. The teen gave Kakashi a sharp look and said, "Or did you think Jiraiya wouldn't tell me that you criticized him for teaching me the Rasengan?"

Kakashi's eye widened in shock. No wonder he was pissed off. He hastened to reassure his former student as he said, "Naruto, it's not that! I just felt you weren't ready for that jutsu yet and that the temptation to misus-"

"Shut up."

The rumbling, brassy voice that came from the blonde's mouth was not Naruto's. It was…dark. It was old.

"One, considering the Yondaime never felt you should learn the Rasengan, you have no place to preach about its use," Naruto spoke in a normal voice while holding up a single finger. His tone was neutral, but there was the hint of a cold fury unlike anything Kakashi had ever experienced before. The teen raised another finger and said, "And two, considering Sasuke tried to murder me in cold blood with the Chidori, your ability to judge who should be trusted with high class jutsu is flawed to the point of being retarded and ignorant. It was not and never will be your place to decide what skills I should and should not be entrusted with. You gave that right up when you gave me to another teacher.

"Now that we've established that you're a hideous judge of character, I can get to the point: you got upset when I learned a better jutsu than Sasuke. You did the same thing with Gai and Lee. You were so sure Sasuke was such a powerful shinobi, then 'out of nowhere' another teacher comes along and reveals a far stronger student. I don't know if you were using Sasuke to measure yourself up to Gai and Jiraiya or what the hell your problem was and, honestly, I don't care."

Naruto lightly flexed his right hand and slowly popped his knuckles as he briefly paused. Though he hated what he was hearing, Kakashi couldn't think of anything to say to fill in the conversation gap.

"If you knew both the Rasengan and the Chidori, which would you have taught to Sasuke?" The kitsune asked.

"The Chidori," Kakashi answered firmly. It was the similarities between Sasuke and himself that had inspired him to teach the boy that move.

"And after I learned the Rasengan?" Naruto asked, seemingly accepting the statement.

"…I would have taught it to him," The Copy-ninja grudgingly answered.

"Yet you didn't teach me the Chidori…Or at least you didn't try very hard," The teen said almost casually. It was the truth, but by now Kakashi was getting used to these low blows to his pride. Well, they felt like low blows. In all honesty, this was pretty justified.

"Here's my final question, Hatake," Naruto said as he stopped his pace and crossed his arms over his chest. "If at some point, you had been able to copy the Rasengan from me and teach it to Sasuke, would you have?"

"That's not fair and you know it!" Kakashi yelled at the teen, finally losing his cool. It was bad enough that other elite ninjas gave him dark looks when he sometimes copied techniques. He didn't need some kid blatantly accusing him of jutsu theft too.

"Is it?" Naruto said in a cold, silky voice that stopped the copy-nin's protest in his tracks. "Answer the question, Hatake: Even though it was the Fourth's prize technique, even though it was entrusted to me by a Sannin, if you had the ability to stea-…I'm sorry, copy the Rasengan when Sasuke couldn't and give it to him, would you do it? Knowing that I didn't have a Bloodline Limit, that I wasn't a genius, that skills and jutsu came hard to me and that I had to work my ass off for them, that it was the most prized thing I had to my name, would you take the Rasengan and give it to Sasuke?"

"What makes you think I would do such a thing?" Kakashi replied, evading the question. He knew the answer, he just didn't want to say it out loud. When put into a perspective like this, it made him ill to think of someone doing such a thing. Was this how the others saw it?

Naruto narrowed his eyes and said one word.


The jounin flinched, but covered it up almost immediately and said, "Sasuke had already copied Lee-kun's tai-jutsu. All he needed was a month to train to get his body adapted to it. I already told you and the others that at the chuunin finals."

"You did say that and that excuse is the same thing now as it was then: bullshit," Naruto snapped. He narrowed his strange eyes at the jounin and said, "Your arrogance is disgusting, Hatake. Do you really think everyone else is so stupid? Shikamaru and Gai probably figured it out the minute you shot your mouth off. Why Gai didn't take your fucking head off, I have no idea. I suppose that speaks volumes of his character. If you had the audacity to do that to my student, I would have killed you."

"And just what do you think I did?" Kakashi asked with a feeling of dread.

"Sasuke copied a move from Lee. One. As in singular. One, not two, not three, not a dozen, he copied one move…Not an entire fucking fighting style!" The kitsune roared. Kakashi slid into a light stance as he felt killing intent radiating from the blonde. The teen gritted his teeth and forced his rage back down. Now was not the time to get violent. The jounin relaxed when he sensed the other shinobi regaining control of himself.

"I was there Hatake," Naruto started again. His voice was tense and angry, but at least it was restrained now. "Not only did Sasuke only copy a single move, he wasn't even able to copy the entire thing. Why else would he create the Shi-Shi Rendan? Lee wasn't able to complete his attack on Sasuke, so he wasn't able to copy the entire thing. Exactly how do you figure that copying an incomplete move could be taken as an entire tai-jutsu style? Is every non-genius person you meet that stupid in your eyes? It's a wonder people even talk to you, if that's how you think about them."

Kakashi didn't answer, a deep feeling of dread welling up in him.

"There's only one logical explanation for Sasuke having Lee's tai-jutsu: you," Naruto continued and casually pointed a finger at the copy-nin. The jounin broke eye contact when he realized the genin had figured it out. "Sasuke didn't copy all of Lee's tai-jutsu, but you did. You uncovered the Sharingan when Lee was opening the Gates and left it open the whole time he was kicking Gaara around. Gai didn't say anything about you leaving your Sharingan open, probably because he thought you'd never do something so dishonorable, so at the time I didn't think anything of it. But it now makes sense. You copied Lee's tai-jutsu and then let Sasuke copy it from you. You totally ripped off someone else's student to advance your own. That's why I think you would have taken the Rasengan from me and given it to Sasuke, had it been within your power.

"Hell, if you could you'd probably copy it right now and give it to your new star pupil. You knew, you knew that tai-jutsu was all Lee had. That was it. Even I had more talent in nin-jutsu and gen-jutsu than him. That kid had nothing and he was desperate to prove himself to anyone who'd bother to pay him a second's attention. Lee worked his ass off to master tai-jutsu, hell to find anything he was good at period. He had nothing, he finally found something precious that was his alone, and you stole it from him. You took the only thing of value from someone who had nothing else and gave it to someone who had everything. Did Sasuke even appreciate what you had done? Of course not. In his mind he probably felt it was his god given right to take it and that it should have belonged to him in the first place. You know, you said once that Sasuke was the same type as you. I agree. The two of you are garbage. Worthless, human garbage. There was a reason Yondaime never trusted his technique to you."

Kakashi wanted to get furious. He wanted to get angry and cut this brat down to size. The sheer audacity of a genin seriously berating a jounin was unheard of. He was shocked that Naruto of all people would say such things to him. The boy had whined and complained before about Sasuke getting more attention, but it had just been hot air for the most part. These words cut and no matter how hard he tried, the Copy-ninja couldn't get angry. Naruto was right. He'd acted despicably when it came to the pedestal he'd placed Sasuke on. It wasn't the same awe the rest of the village held him in, but he had held the Uchiha in extremely high regard. Far more so than Naruto whom, though he had acknowledged as strong, had always been inferior in his eyes compare to Sasuke.

That last statement really hurt. He always had wondered why his sensei never taught him so much as the first level of the Rasengan. He'd tried to convince himself at first that there were any number of reasons why the Fourth never had time to teach him that jutsu, be it distraction by Hokage duties, to dealing with Obito's death, or by being occupied with the wars. Over time though, Kakashi had come to realize that the Yondaime hadn't forgotten to teach him Rasengan; he simply never intended for him to learn it. Period. The jounin had asked his sensei only once to teach him the move. The blonde man had given him a hard, penetrating look for several moments and replied with a simple 'no.'

Kakashi had never worked up the courage to ask him again. He'd never even managed to ask why the Hokage had refused. The question had bothered him off and on for years. Naruto's view probably wasn't the truth, but it did raise some upsetting thoughts. Why did the Yondaime refuse to teach him the Rasengan?

"I…What do you want from me Naruto? I can't change the past," The jounin finally said in a resigned tone. "The only thing I can do is apologize."

"Fuck you and fuck your apology," The teen casually replied as he resumed his lazy pacing. "Again, you're only sorry about how things turned out. Had Sasuke remained loyal, I would still be shafted in his favor. And it kills me, it really does. Even though he hasn't done anything of value for the Leaf, you'd still pick him over me."

"Well, to be brutally honest Naruto, Sasuke was a more valuable ninja than you," Kakashi pointed out. He immediately regretted his words when the kitsune gave him a stare with blood-red eyes. Shit, he wasn't going to like this. He had a response for that point too.

"Let's review what happened between academy graduation day and the day he defected…I beat Mizuki. Haku beat Sasuke. I beat Haku. We both lost to Orochimaru and I won't count me killing one of his snake summons. Sasuke beat a Sound-nin, whatever his name was. Sasuke then beat some other nobody in the preliminaries. I beat Kiba. I beat Neji, which you never even bothered to comment on, by the way. Gaara beat Sasuke. I beat Gaara's full power. Itachi dominated Sasuke. I beat Kabuto. And finally, Sasuke managed to beat me. Let's tally that all up: I beat a chuunin level traitor when I wasn't even a genin, a renegade Hunter-nin, a powerful genin, an ingenious prodigy, a fucking demon-vessel, and a traitor as strong as you. That's a total of six wins, three of which were against powerful enemies of the Leaf, and two losses. Sasuke beat two no-names and the dead-last. Three wins, none of which meant shit, and four losses. Exactly how do you figure he was a more valuable ninja than me? His grades?"

Naruto's voice would make a glacier seem warm by comparison. Kakashi resisted the urge to make a grimace, regardless that the kitsune wouldn't see it. Yet another good point. When one looked at the big picture, Sasuke held less value for the Leaf than Naruto did. Funny how no one, including himself, had noticed that until after the Uchiha defected.

"Just on paper…" The jounin muttered, echoing his words from a month ago. He stared at the ground for several long moments. Naruto had apparently run out of things to berate him for, thankfully. Despite his harsh attitude, the teen was telling the truth. Kakashi had done all those things and he'd been a stuck-up prick about it too. Granted, he was a subtle prick, but that didn't change his smug attitude or the barbs he'd made towards the others at the time. He could only be grateful everyone blew it off. Otherwise, nobody would likely so much as hold a conversation with him.

"Bah…and you wonder why I don't want to be associated with geniuses. The whole lot of you are-"

"You were right."

"Pardon?" Naruto asked while raising a blonde eyebrow.

"You were right," Kakashi said louder. He lifted his head and met the genin's eyes with his own level stare. "I don't have any excuses. I made mista-…I made colossal fuck ups regarding you and Sasuke. Yes, you beat Gaara when Sasuke didn't and couldn't. Yes, I would have taught him the Rasengan, just so my prize student could stay ahead of everyone else. Yes, I stole Lee-kun's tai-jutsu and I told everyone else that Sasuke had already taken it. Yes, I would have…I would have stolen the Rasengan from you and given it to him. Yes, you were the more valuable ninja. I admit all that Naruto and I won't try to get out of it. And whether or not you accept it, I'm still apologizing for my actions."

Naruto paused in his pace and gave the copy-nin a sidelong glance.

"It's about time you got your head out of your ass, Hatake, but you're still dumping water on a long gone building," He said. Though his words were harsh, there was far less venom in his voice. "You can apologize as much as you want, but you're not going to rebuild the building no matter how many buckets you upend on it."

"So what happens now?" Kakashi asked, honestly curious at what the teen would say.

"…Tsunade-nee-chan placed me on this team and as her subordinate I don't have any choice in the matter. That doesn't mean I won't make your life a living hell if I feel like it. I don't care about rules or chain of command or punishment and I've already proven we're about even in a fight, so don't think I'll hold back when it come to torturing you. And believe me, Hatake, nobody knows Hell like I do," Naruto said as he resumed his light pacing. He casually continued, "Using my example from earlier, as long as the building remains destroyed, you and I have no relationship, working or otherwise. Normally, I'd be perfectly content to leave it like that considering the bullshit I had to put up with from you. However, I've thought about this a lot the past year and I decided that there's at least one reason why I should give fixing things between us a shot. To that end, I'll offer you a deal."

"What reason are you talking about?" The jounin asked curiously. Whatever it was, it had to be big if it was more important than all the stuff Naruto had verbally flayed him over.

"You care about me," The kitsune calmly replied. "You may have favored Sasuke over me, but you still watched out for me sometimes. You bandaged my injuries, you occasionally stopped by to make sure I was eating alright, and you've saved my life a couple of times. Despite your attitude in other areas, that shows to me that you aren't a total ass and a waste of time like most of the other geniuses I know."

"I see. What's the bargain?" Kakashi asked. He knew damn well that Naruto of all people could make life miserable for him if he wanted to and he'd gladly take the route that avoided a scenario like that.

"Lee. I want Rock Lee. On this team. Permanently," Naruto said in a perfectly serious tone. Not given the shocked Copy-ninja a chance to respond, he continued, "I'll give you a few days to win Gai over, but after that I'll make your life such a nightmare you'll wish my clones had beaten your skull in and finished you off. I'll continue to torment you with every trick my prankster and demonic nature can come up with until you get Lee on this team. When you do that, I'll consider it a first step towards rebuilding something between us and will quit the torture. Until then, you're worth little more than dirt to me."

"…Why Lee? Why him and not Neji or one of the other ninjas from your year?" Kakashi asked, though his mind was more focused on the titanic (and likely impossible) task of getting Maito Gai to surrender his prized student to his 'Eternal Rival.'

"I have my reasons and they aren't your concern. He's a valuable fighter and worth his weight in platinum, so there shouldn't be any problems on your part from a jounin-sensei's perceptive," Naruto calmly replied. His face was impassive and gave no hint to his motives.

"Why should I be the one to get Lee?" The jounin asked, trying a different approach that might get the teen to reveal something.

"You owe Lee ten times what you owe me," The kitsune replied in a steady voice. "If I got shafted by your favoritism, then Lee was totally gangbanged. I'll bet you never said a word of apology to him or Gai for your actions. Of course not. That would mean taking responsibility for your actions by admitting you had done something wrong and nobody thinks a genius is capable of royally fucking up, least of all the genius himself. You owe Lee and you need to pay him back for what you've done. Getting him on the same team as me will be a major start."

"With you? What are you talking about?" Kakashi questioned. Despite his brilliant mind, he had no idea what the genin meant.

"That's none of your business, Hatake. Now, do we have a deal?" Naruto casually replied.

"…Do you have any idea how hard it'll be to convince Gai to transfer Lee to my team permanently?" Kakashi demanded. Just the idea of bringing the subject up with his rival was unsettling.

"Yes, I do," Naruto answered with a wicked grin that would have made the Kyuubi proud. The Copy-ninja felt a slight shiver go up his spine at the sight. "Consider it divine retribution. Actions speak louder than words and doing this will be worth more than a hundred thousand apologies in my eyes. Anyone can shoot their mouth off till they're hoarse, but I wonder if you'll do more than that. Perhaps you'll go through with it; perhaps not. Depending on which way you choose to go, your true character will be revealed and I can decide whether you're worth any effort or not.."

"And if Gai flat out refuses?" The jounin asked with a bit of dread.

"Then you didn't try hard enough. Nothing is impossible if you're willing to make the right sacrifices and work hard enough for it. Maybe this'll be a lesson for a genius like you. Experience what it's like to actually work for something and maybe you won't look down on others so much," The kitsune answered in a light tone. His voice turned serious as he asked, "One last time: do we have a deal?"

"…I'll do the best I can, though I can't make any promises," Kakashi answered after several moments of thought. Who knows? Maybe Gai would be merciful.


"You have three days starting now. I'll leave you alone until then, but after that it's open season until Lee officially and permanently joins Team 7. Heehee, I can't wait," Naruto said, though the last sentence was mostly to himself. A little cold sweat appeared on Kakashi's brow at the positively evil and borderline insane look on the genin's face at the prospect of tormenting him. The kitsune began to think aloud to himself, "I wonder what prank will create the most incentive to win Gai over? Maybe the one I used on the Earth daimyo…No, he went nuts afterwards. No good. What about…Nah, the rashes would never go away…Perhaps that one. It'll all wash off…eventually….maybe. If we have a monsoon, hehe. Hmm, decisions, decisions…"

Kakashi wasn't sure whether to shiver or sweat-drop at the teen's muttering. He settled for saying, "Well, I'll need to focus all my energy on convincing Gai, so team training is cancelled for the next three days. I'll let Ino know we're off for tomorrow on my way to Gai and Lee's place. I guess it wouldn't hurt to meet here at the end of the three days. Hopefully I'll have some good news."

Naruto glanced up and shrugged.

"If I've learned anything from Team 7 it's not to rely on you to pull through for me. It's always a toss up where you're concerned, so I'm not getting my hopes up," The genin replied in a light tone. Without so much as a 'later', he wandered off down the path, retracing Ino's earlier route. He was still wondering aloud at his potential pranks as he disappeared through the trees.

Kakashi watched him go, then let out a loud sigh when the teen was out of earshot. That had been an unpleasant experience. He knew Naruto was likely to hold a grudge, but this was far worse than he'd expected.

'Well, what did you expect to happen after the shit you pulled? He'd just come back, give a fox-grin and act like nothing had ever happened? Maybe he would've been nice enough to bring you a new, unreleased edition of Icha Icha,' The jounin sarcastically thought to himself. Right…Like that would ever happen in the real world.

The Copy-ninja stretched his back and winced a little at some of the bruises that had formed from the clones' attacks during the test. Naruto had improved so much he was barely recognizable from a fighting point of view. Even with the Sharingan, Kakashi wasn't entirely sure he could beat the teen. Many of his techniques couldn't be copied and his unnaturally high stamina would have only increased in the two and a half years he'd been gone. Worse, he was totally unpredictable in his strategies and attacks. Before, he made enough foolish mistakes that his chaotic nature wasn't a threat, but now there was no telling what his next move would be except that it would be dangerous. That made him a far more deadly opponent than Sasuke or Ino ever could be. Shikamaru would undoubtedly back him on that. The hardest opponent to beat in a strategy game was the one who seemed to make no sense in their movements, yet had a method to their madness.

'So why are you making such an effort to appease him?' The jounin asked himself.

Well, for one he was stuck with the kitsune. If Tsunade wouldn't listen to Naruto of all people, then it was doubtful she'd listen to Kakashi if he made a transfer request. She'd probably smirk at him and reply that it was his just desserts. Naruto held no fear of authority; never had really. He would deliberately fail a mission, pull a prank on a higher ranking ninja, or pick a fight with anyone and not care what kind of punishment he received. If he said he'd make Kakashi's life hell, then he meant it. No amount of ordering, threatening, or violence would change that. And the jounin had never been much of a prankster, so he doubted he could keep up with the teen in that regard. No, it would be best to get Lee on his team as soon as possible. There'd be less problems that way.

And he was curious. This wasn't the Naruto he had known. This Naruto had been seasoned under the tutelage of a Sannin and the greatest of the youma, so much so that he was almost as good as Kakashi himself. With the Rasengan on his side, a fight between them would be far too close to call. He was everything a teacher could want in a student: sharp-witted, creative, and possessing power in spades. He was both familiar and new, making him an interesting combination. Kakashi knew he'd regret it if he didn't take the opportunity to get to know this young man, pride be damned.

Well…There was that, and the fact that what the kitsune had said was true: out of the blue he had royally screwed over Lee. The kid had never been anything but polite and friendly towards him, if a little weird at times, and Kakashi had repaid that respect with an appallingly dishonorable act of theft. No wonder Naruto was disgusted with him.

Well, he could stand around here wasting time or he could get off his ass and try to fix things. He didn't have much experience when it came to groveling, but hopefully he was smart enough to wing it convincingly.

He could only pray, though, that Gai wouldn't just rip his head off immediately for daring to even suggest taking Lee from him.

Three days passed quickly for Naruto. As there were no team meetings, he'd mostly spent the time catching up with Jiraiya, usually while lounging about in his kitchen or on the deck. Though he was understandably reluctant to do so, the kitsune had allowed the old pervert to crash on one of the couches in his living room while he was in town (the sennin hadn't been kidding when he said he was totally out of cash. Working on rebuilding his spy network had cost him almost everything.) Jiraiya had been well behaved so far, but Naruto was just waiting for the moment when he stumbled across a stash of porno's hidden somewhere in his house. Still, the hermit was a sharp witted person to have a conversation with and it was good to have someone to bounce jutsu ideas off of.

Naruto had been curious about the failure in the spy network and what the Sannin had done to rebuild it. The Toad-hermit hadn't told him much, mostly because he himself hadn't found much info of use. But Jiraiya wasn't a sennin for nothing and it was only a matter of time before he rebuilt his network. It would be a pain in the ass, but he would pull it off. Naruto hadn't been able to offer any real assistance, but he'd made his sensei promise to call on him if he needed him to try and find an old jutsu in the Kyuubi's memories or if he simply needed back-up for a fight.

Hell, it'd likely be so much fun, he wouldn't hold any favors against the pervert.

The rest of the time they spent exchanging stories from the past year and with Naruto explaining in detail all the changes the fusion had wrought on him. Jiraiya was especially interested in the terror effect, as Orochimaru had mastered a similar ability using raw killing intent. Like Tsunade, he ordered the teen to use it on him and reacted to it much the same as his old teammate had. The Toad-hermit was more stubborn about it though and had Naruto use it on him off and on for several days till he was sure he had a solid defense against the ability (which was not an easy task by any means.) Jiraiya figured that if he could shrug off the brutal effects of the Kyuubi's terror, then Orochimaru's killing intent wouldn't faze him in the least.

The ero-sennin was also interested in Naruto's extreme level of regeneration. The kitsune had demonstrated it with a steak knife and Jiraiya watched every torn piece of flesh mend like a hawk. He had obviously seen Naruto's healing factor first hand in the time they'd traveled together, but never at such a rapid speed. The half-demon had barely finished his grimace of pain by the time his skin was almost healed. The Sannin was already redesigning his whole line of thought when it came to Naruto's fighting style. Though the teen didn't truly need him as a full time trainer anymore, like the Yondaime, he would still run his abilities and new jutsu by Jiraiya to have a trusted and more experienced opinion on them. Besides, the old pervert made a hell of a training partner, though they were so similar it was often hard to fight each other to more than a draw.

Naruto told Jiraiya every detail about the training exercises he had undergone with Shimoyake Maruishi, the Hyougakage. The Sannin was a bit annoyed at someone else training his prized pupil, but he ignored it in favor of his curiosity. Unlike Tsunade, the One-Legged Mountain Climbing exercise greatly interested him and he was tempted to take a brief training trip to the nearest mountains to have Naruto demonstrate it to him. The kitsune had dryly replied 'over your dead body', so that idea kind of fell out. Still, that and the other training exercises were duly recorded in the Toad-hermit's sharp mind for later use.

Between the talks and sparring with his old sensei, Naruto had been pleasantly distracted enough that the arrival of the third day came as a bit of a surprise. He decided to go a little early to the training field, just to have a little peace and quiet before the day started. He left Jiraiya behind at his house (after numerous death threats and extracting an oath on the Sannin's mother's grave that nothing pornographic would go on while he was gone) and made his way to the meeting place.

Ino found him there an hour later in the oddest position she'd ever seen (and this was from someone who used to deal with Chouji overeating and passing out in bizarre places on an almost daily basis.)

When the blonde girl walked down the dusty path into the middle of the training field, she immediately sensed Naruto's presence. When she looked towards the spot his thoughts were radiating from, all she could see was a strange black, orange, and cream colored object stuck to the side of a tree. As she walked closer, part of the object rustled and shifted a bit, making black ripples in the air around it. It looked like some sort of optical illusion and was beginning to strain her eyes when the early morning sun rose over the canopy of the eastern trees. As the bright light slowly crawled down the face of the tree trunk and reached the object, the black distortions suddenly became three-dimensional and recognizable objects resting on an equally recognizable person.

A crow turned from its perch on Naruto's back to give Ino a beady eyed stare and a derisive caw. Several other ravens and crows made similar noises at her. The genin had the feeling she was the butt of a nasty joke the birds were exchanging back and forth. As weird as the birds were, it was Naruto who truly got her attention. The other genin was sitting in a squat on the side of the tree trunk, casually writing on a piece of paper he had pressed to the bark between his legs. The kitsune was seemingly perfectly relaxed with resting in a position that defied the laws of physics. Apparently tree-climbing wasn't the slightest challenge for him if he could stick at a 90 degree angle on the trunk with a bunch of weird birds roosting on him.

"Err…Uzumaki, what're yo-"

"All done. Tengu-kun!" Naruto suddenly called out into the trees around him. As he folded the paper up, Ino's vision caught a black distortion moving away from the branches of a nearby pine. As it crossed the barrier between shadow and sunlight, it shifted into the largest raven the blonde girl had ever seen. Of course, she hardly made a habit of staring at weird black birds, but she was sure that any bird with a wingspan as wide as she was tall counted as pretty damn big.

Naruto finished folding the paper and performed a series of hand-seals over it. It glowed a greenish color for a second as the kitsune said, "Tobias Tinkerlot", then shifted to a forbidding looking red-orange color. Several odd designs that Ino couldn't make out appeared on the paper and it took on the appearance of an envelope with a large loop of string hanging from one end.

"Take this to Tinker-boss in the Hidden Night, will you Tengu-kun?" Naruto asked as he stood up (still sticking to the tree) and held the letter out. The large raven swooped by and smoothly snatched the envelope by the string loop with it's black talons.

"As you wish, Naruto-sama," The bird replied just before it flew out of earshot. It rose up over the forest canopy and quickly disappeared over the trees.

Naruto watched it for a moment and muttered to himself, "Maybe I should check up on Gaara too."

"Uzumaki!" Ino yelled up at him. The kitsune glanced down at her and raised an eyebrow.

"Do you always make a habit of addressing strangers so informally?" Naruto asked with an amused smirk. He of all people certainly didn't care about etiquette, but it was still an odd tendency.

"Of course. You'd be surprised how much it embarrasses your parents when you're young and addressing their friends like that. I guess the habit stuck," Ino replied with a smug half-smile.

"Huh. Wouldn't know," The kitsune said with a casual shrug.

The blonde girl on the ground took a second to make the connection and almost winced when she did. Naruto was one of the Kyuubi orphans and one that had never even been adopted by a foster family. She wasn't very surprised now that she knew he was the Kyuubi-vessel. Only someone who was insane or had a heart of gold would willingly take a possessed child into their home. It seemed Konoha was sorely lacking in the good Samaritan department.

"Err, sorry," Ino apologized after a moment. The kitsune waved her apology off, not caring in the slightest about a little slip of the tongue. When it became obvious her comment hadn't even slightly annoyed the genin, the blonde girl continued, "Besides, you're not really a stranger, Uzumaki…you're just strange."

Naruto gave a short bark of laughter and replied, "Can't argue that one."

The kitsune looked up and eyed the sun's position for a moment, then craned his neck back to mutter something to a crow resting on his shoulder. The bird nodded and took off. A few seconds later, the rest of the birds on Naruto and several dozen in the branches of the trees near him all took flight following the first. The large murder swarmed in the air for a minute, then took off towards the village. They looked like a ominous black cloud spindling it's way through the air above Konoha.

Ino watched the murder go, then looked up and asked, "What was that about?"

Naruto gave her a wicked grin and said, "What? Can't you just peek into my thoughts and figure it out for yourself?"

The earthbound genin huffed a little and said, "I try to be polite and stay out of people's thoughts most of the time. Unless you're screaming in your head or focusing on me really hard, I won't pick up what you're thinking."

"Ah, an honorable spy, I see," The arboreal genin replied with a teasing smile. At Ino's glare he raised his hands in an appeasing manner, "Hey, hey! No need to get mad. I appreciate the sentiment."

"Jerk…" The blonde girl muttered. "Are you going to tell what's up with the crows or not?"

"Nothing big. Just a little surprise for a mutual acquaintance of ours," Naruto answered with a not-so-innocent grin. In fact, he looked like the cat that ate the canary…Or more accurately, the fox that had broken into the chicken coop.

"We have lots of mutual acquaintances…Which one are you talking about?" Ino asked with a suspicious look.

"Not teeeelllliiiinnnngggg!" Naruto answered in a sing-song tone while crossing his eyes and sticking his tongue out at the pretty genin. Since he was still standing horizontally off the side of a tree, he looked like some bizarre blonde monkey-fox.

Ino didn't bother to answer. She narrowed her eyes in concentration as she stared up at the other genin. Her eyes lighted from their normal blue-gray to a haunting teal color as she focused on the kitsune's mind.

"Nah-nah! Too late!" Naruto yelled at the top of his lungs, scaring the living crap out of Ino. Her face bunched up in a cute (though frightening) frown as she glared in confusion at her fellow shinobi. The kitsune elaborated for her when he noticed she wasn't catching on. "I'm not thinking about it anymore! You can't pry it out of me, ha ha!."

"Stop acting like a damn kid and quit goofing off," The psychic girl ordered as her eyes shifted back to normal. Her annoyance was mostly because Naruto was right: she couldn't figure out who he was referring to. He had literally forced himself to forget the subject he'd just been thinking and cloaked what was left with a chaotic mishmash of half-formed ideas. The amount of willpower such a trick must require to pull off was very high, especially considering the other genin almost certainly had no psychic training whatsoever.

"Fine, ruin my good mood," Naruto replied in a normal (if slightly teasing) tone as he went into a squat again.

"Will you get down from there? You're giving me a crick in the neck," Ino complained, rubbing her thin neck for emphasis.

"I dunno…Is it safe? You're not going to stick me with a Chidori again, are you?" The kitsune asked in a semi-serious tone.

An embarrassed flush colored Ino's cheeks an interesting shade of crimson. He just had to bring that up again, didn't he? That fight had not ended in her proudest moment.

"No, I won't use the Chidori, you ass!" The female genin yelled. She was not going to live that down for a long time.

Naruto made a noncommittal, "Hmmm," and kicked off the tree trunk. He landed in a smooth crouch about ten feet from the other shinobi. A shift in the wind brought Ino's light scent towards him. Unlike Hana's, her smell didn't bother him in the slightest. She smelled like synthetic potting soil, different wildflowers, some sort of light perfume, and a hint of clean female. It was a very pleasant odor and one that he hadn't been able to enjoy the last time they'd had a conversation. Her scent was surprisingly relaxing and he felt his guard lowering naturally.

"Well, I guess I don't have to watch my back around you," The kitsune said in a light tone. He stood and walked off towards a shady patch of ground between some trees.

"Where're you going?" Ino called after him.

"It's going to get hot soon, right? I want to relax while we wait for Hatake!" The other genin yelled back. The blonde girl shrugged and followed after without much hesitation.

She found Naruto sitting cross-legged facing a low tree stump that had a piece of paper laid out across it. Feeling like she was joining the kitsune at a table, Ino sat down on the opposite side of the stump and watched him curiously as he scribbled out a couple lines of kanji. He leaned back and let the ink dry for a moment, then folded the paper up into an envelope and performed the same set of seals that he'd used on his previous letter.

"Gaara of the Desert," Naruto clearly stated when the paper glowed green. Up close, Ino could see the fibrous surface shift into the ominous red-orange color. Strange black ink designs wound their way like ivy across the surface of the envelope and a blot of blood-red wax bubbled up in the center to seal it closed. As she watched, the wax shifted and took on the imprint of a simple spiral, looking as though Naruto had pressed a stamp into its surface. One of the ink tendrils turned white and separated from the surface of the paper to form a loop of string.

"What did you just do to that?" Ino asked, pointing at the letter while making sure to keep her hand a safe distance from it.

"Tegami bakudan no jutsu. Little trick I picked up awhile back," Naruto casually replied as he used his thumb nail to slice open his finger. He smeared the trickle along the inside of his first two fingers and pressed it to the stump. "Kuchiyose no jutsu."

With a puff of ninja smoke, a small raven appeared. It ruffled its feathers for a moment, then looked to the kitsune for orders.

"Take this to Gaara of the Desert, please. And be careful. I don't want anyone to see you or to know he's receiving messages from out of the country," The genin ordered in a low tone. The small bird bowed, then bent to put its head through the string loop. It took off into the air at a considerably slower pace than any of the other birds Ino had seen that day.

Ino gave a satisfied nod, both to Naruto's answer and to the caution he was taking in contacting Gaara. The person he mailed earlier was probably in a highly protected area, otherwise he wouldn't have used such a large…bird…that…

Wait, did he just…

"Did you just say Letter Bomb no jutsu?" Ino yelled in disbelief. Almost instantly another thought hit her and she roared, "Did you just say Gaara of the Desert?"

Naruto stared at the other genin for several moments before saying, "You know, Ino-san, caffeine isn't the answer to life's problems. Eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, and the occasional visit to a therapist will do much more for you than overdosing on any stimulant."

"I'm not high on caffeine and I'm not crazy!" Ino shrieked, causing the kitsune's ears to temporarily deafen themselves in protest. The blonde girl reached across the stump and jabbed her finger into the teen's chest as she said, "You're the one chatting with a psychopath and mailing bombs to people!"

"Relax, Ino-san, I'm not bombing anybody. Well, if they're smart enough to not open a letter that's addressed to someone else, then I won't be bombing anyone," The other genin replied with a lighthearted shrug. His face then became annoyed and he said, "Hey! Gaara's my friend! Don't go around calling him a psychopath, he's not that bad when you get to…Err, he's kind of nice when…Hmm…Well he is pretty damn crazy, but he's calmed down some in the last few years. Besides, he's still my best friend, so don't talk bad about him."

"You're friends with that lunatic?" Ino asked in disbelief, making no secret that she thought he was the one who should be seeing a shrink.

"Yeah, I am. He's a very good friend of mine and besides…Err, I'm not exactly a shining example of sanity myself, so I can't really hold it against him that he's nuts," Naruto replied with a slightly sheepish shrug. His expression became distant and dark as he said, "I doubt a single person exists who could survive the living nightmare that was his life and come out better than him."

"What're you talking about? Isn't he…Oh, right. He's a demon-vessel," The blonde girl said in a far more subdued tone. She gave the other genin an appraising look and said, "But you handled your burden far better than he did and while I agree you might be a little unstable, you aren't a murdering madman."

"So you know about the Kyuubi. Somehow I'm not surprised," Naruto said in a neutral voice. He rested his elbows on the stump and laced his fingers together, making a spot for his chin to rest on. He eyed the ground for a moment, then glanced up at Ino, "My life has been hell. There is no other way to say it. It's been a subtle hell, but still a hell. However, I'm the product of necessity. Yondaime had no other choice but to sacrifice a human child to trap the Kyuubi. Gaara on the other hand…Once upon a time, Gaara's father got it into his head that he wanted a ninja super-weapon. So he goes and finds an ancient jutsu along with the spirit of an insane priest turned demon, then uses both on Gaara to possess him…While he was still in his mother's womb."

Ino's jaw dropped in horror. She slowly whispered, "Kami…"

Naruto gave her a dark, but understanding look. If Orochimaru hadn't already killed the Kazekage, he himself probably would have, regardless of the treaty between the Sand and Leaf. There were some crimes that simply couldn't be left unanswered for.

"It gets worse, believe it or not," The kitsune said in a voice so low it resembled a growl. "There's a reason why seals performed on infants are done the day they're born and not sooner. Gaara's body survived, but it was altered on a base level, though as far as I can tell not in a bad way, thank Kami. His mind, however, did not survive entirely. Worse, the demon he's possessed with is infamous for destroying its hosts' minds bit by bit whenever they sleep. Gaara can't sleep without unleashing Shukaku and having a hunk of his mind devoured. He goes for years without sleeping. Human's need sleep, Ino-san, it's simply not negotiable. Without sleep, the mind decays rapidly. Gaara was going to lose his mind eventually either way. The Kazekage, knowing this, took action and proved once and for all that he's the uncontested champion of the "Worst Parent of the Millennium" award.

"He spoiled Gaara from the day he was born, while not providing any real human contact for him aside from the brother of his mother. Like me, every villager hated Gaara and was terrified of him. Unlike me, he had no laws to protect him and his powers weren't properly contained. Long story short, one day he flips out and kills a guy. Guess what the Kazekage does? He panics and tries to scrap his little pet project. From the time Gaara was six till the his own death, the Kazekage sent a constant stream of assassins after him. Know who the first one was? His uncle. Up until that point, Gaara believed him to be the only person to ever love him. Not only did the guy try to kill him, but then he fills his mind with all sorts of shit about him being a monster and how his mother died cursing his name and everyone in the village. All that horror on a six year old child's mind, which was already suffering potential madness. Still wonder why he's insane?"

Ino stared open jawed at Naruto for almost two minutes, trying to get her thoughts focused enough to reply. She finally broke her fish impersonation and choked out, "That's the sickest thing I've ever heard."

"Yeah, it is," Naruto nodded, sharing the opinion. "Believe me, I thought I had it bad, but when I met Gaara I realized it could have been much worse. Much worse. Frankly, I'm impressed that he has any sanity at all left. I probably would've broke years ago."

"…I wouldn't sell yourself or your life short, Uzumaki," Ino quietly said after a long pause. When she met his eyes, Naruto was surprised at the intensity in the blue-gray orbs. "Gaara may have had it worse, but that's only from your point of view. To any normal person, there's no real difference. Your lives from the day you two were born have been nightmares. Hell, my worst dream hasn't come close to a single day from either your life or Gaara's. Kami-sama, Uzumaki, you were never even smiled at! You never had a single friend till after you became a genin. Do you realize that there isn't a single person on this planet that has the slightest idea of what it's like to be completely and totally hated from the day of you were born? No one can understand what it's like to be hated for no reason by everyone and to have no memory of kindness. Do not ever think that what you went through the first twelve years of your life can be excused or belittled in any way. For God's sake, how can you not be insane? How can you not be an enraged madman? Why the hell haven't you let the Kyuubi out and finished this village off? How can you-"

Naruto's large and warm hand gently cut off Ino's tirade by covering her mouth. The small smile he gave her was the most beautiful and heartbreaking sight she had ever seen in her life. It was shy. It was appreciative. It was warm. It was sad. It was…Just him. Unguarded and happy that someone cared about him.

Ino swore to herself that she'd never forget that expression as long as she lived.

"It's alright, Ino-san," Naruto quietly said as he leaned back and removed his hand from her face.

"No it's not," She firmly replied.

"…No, it's not," He conceded with a nod. He gave a sheepish little smile and tapped the side of his head as he said, "I may be a little crazy and Gaara may be very crazy, but don't worry about it. I'm a survivor. I've never given up once in my life and I won't start now. Gaara's a survivor too, in his way. We'll be fine in the end."

"It's still not right," Ino said in a stubborn voice. Her face tingled slightly where Naruto's hand had been.

"I never said it was. I said we'd be fine, or at least as fine as we can ever get," The kitsune said with a light shrug. "I can either accept my life and keep going or I can let it get to me and be a depressed, miserable, boring mess the rest of my life."

"How can you handle it?" The blonde girl asked in a small, quiet tone.

"That's where being a little unhinged comes in handy," Naruto replied with an amused smile. "Being a little crazy can make a horribly overwhelming position a little better. Or at least endurable."

"You're a lot stronger than I could ever be in your position," Ino said, briefly meeting the other teen's twilight eyes before eyeing the ground.

"Now why worry about something silly like that?" The genin asked in a lightly chiding tone. "Don't feel guilty that you don't have a burden as heavy as me and don't contrast yourself to me either. You're you and I'm me and nothing will change that. Asking yourself 'what if' or comparing yourself to me is pointless."

"You know, I think Shikamaru said that once to me or Chouji," Ino replied with a small smile.

"A wise man," Naruto sagely intoned, nodding his head in a superior manner.

The blonde girl gave an unladylike snort and whapped him on the shoulder. "Quit acting high and mighty, Uzumaki. It doesn't become you."

She rolled her eyes in amusement at the kitsune's wounded expression as he grabbed his upper arm in mock pain.

"You wound me, foul she-devil! I suffer so horribly in my life and this is your sympathy?" Naruto loudly declared before collapsing across the stump as though dead.

"A little crazy, huh?" Ino dryly asked as she raised an eyebrow. When the other genin didn't twitch, she poked his fuzzy head and said, "Get up, unless you want me to turn you into a fox-skin rug."

"Wench," Naruto calmly retorted as he sat up. "Besides, it's not like I have a monopoly on being weird in the head. We're all trained by killers to become killers since early childhood and none of us question the institution. Exactly how that's considered sane, I have no idea. Though if the higher-ups are nuts, then that explains why they never think we're nuts. I guess they only think it's a real problem when someone goes postal and kills an entire clan."

Ino shrugged, then nodded. He made a good point, though it wasn't something she wanted to consider for too long.

After that, they sat quietly for awhile in the peaceful and empty training grounds. The morning sun was rising higher in the sky and its rays broke through the slowly waving canopy overhead in some places. The kitsune leaned back a little on his hands and enjoyed the fresh, cool breeze blowing through the trees and across the shady grass they were relaxing in. Well, Naruto was pretty relaxed. His fellow genin, on the other hand, had her pretty face scrunched up in thought.

"Got something on your mind?" The half-demon asked as his eyes idly traced a falling leaf as it fluttered through the air.

Ino frowned in thought for several moments before answering, "Tell me about Gaara. The real Gaara. The one who's your friend; not the murdering monster."

"What makes you think there is a real Gaara?" Naruto asked as he refocused his unnerving eyes on her. There was a bit of curiosity in their incandescent depths though, which kept the psychic from withdrawing her question.

"You. No matter how similar he is to you, if Gaara was nothing more than a raging lunatic you wouldn't associate with him at all. That can only mean there's something beyond that psychopathic exterior. Something that's worth being his friend in your eyes," The blonde girl replied.

"…Very true," Naruto slowly answered. He ran his hand through his fuzzy hair for a moment, then asked, "Alright, what do you want to know?"

"Anything, really. He's like a dark reflection of you and I'm curious about where you end and he begins," Ino said. At the kitsune's smirk she hastened to add, "You're my new teammate, dumbass! We should learn more about each other if we're going to work together. Don't read so much into it."

"Uh-huh…" Naruto said after a moment, not letting his teasing smile drop until the other genin's face was bright red. Whether from embarrassment or fury he didn't really know, but he did know it was fun to mess with her like this. Sensing violence in the air, he held up his hands in a placating manner and said, "Alright, alright, truce. I'll talk."

The psychic girl relaxed back and let her hand drift away from her holster. She gestured to the other genin that she was listening and leaned back on her hands, giving him her undivided attention.

"Gaara's, well the real Gaara anyways, deceptive. I don't mean in a manipulative way, it's just how he is to other people," Naruto said after a moment's thought. He continued, "Believe it or not, he's the most loyal person in the world to the few people he cares about. He'd do damn near anything for his siblings and me. Err, he doesn't give a crap about anyone else though, so it's not a wise idea to get in his way. I think he has a degree of respect for Lee, though I'm not sure seeing as how Fuzzy-brows came up rarely in conversation between us."

"So he'd die for you or his brother and sister?" Ino asked in mild disbelief. The idea of that raging killer having feelings like that was simply unreal.

"No," Naruto replied immediately. At the other genin's surprised look he smirked a little and said, "Gaara simply wouldn't let any of us die, including himself. No matter what the cost, he'd keep us all alive. And if by some miracle one of us did die on his watch, he'd walk through Hell to get our souls back from the Death God himself. I almost feel sorry for the freaks down there if they're ever stupid enough to get in his way. And by the bizarre chance one of us got into Heaven, he'd storm the Gates to return us to Earth. He's stubborn like that."

Ino stared at him for a very long moment before stating, "I don't know whether you're joking or not and I never want to."

Naruto's smirk widened into a grin at the comment. Ignoring it for the time being, he continued, "On a personal level, Gaara is surprisingly shy. He may seem like a confident, uber killing machine, but when it comes to dealing with people he has no idea how to act. Usually he's quiet during conversations of three or more people, even if it's just me and his siblings. One on one he talks more, but he's sill quiet. He hasn't learned how to give proper facial expressions either, so to someone who doesn't know him well it feels like you're talking to a statue. But when you get used to him and draw him out of his shell a little, you'd be surprised at how interesting he becomes.

"Gaara's brilliant. I'm not sure if he's genius level or not, but he's pretty damn smart. Way smarter than me, at any rate. He's also perceptive as hell, though he occasionally misses things a normal person would get right away. He doesn't talk often, but when he does it's sharp and to the point. He can turn an entire conversation on end with a single comment or end a debate in three or four words. Sometimes it's a bit disturbing how well he can speak when he wants to. He could be a leader exceeding a Sannin if he put the effort into it. He has power, brains, and is violently protective of the few people who make him happy. It's a wonder he hasn't been asked to become Kazekage yet. It'll be awhile before I get to his level, though I can say for a fact that there's no better rival on this continent for me. Glad it's become friendly or I'd probably be a pile of rotting mush somewhere in the desert right now."

Ino stared at him quizzically after he finished speaking. Naruto noticed the scrutiny and shifted uncomfortably.

"What?" He asked when the girl didn't show any signs of looking away.

"Nothing, it's just…" Ino began, then trailed off. After a second she continued, "You're very different from the person you were before you left with Jiraiya."

"How so?" Naruto asked, puzzled. He shrugged it off and said, "I thought we were talking about Gaara anyways."

"Well now I'm talking about you," Ino stated as she leaned a little over the stump and fixed him with an intent gaze. "You're…different. Before you were always yelling about how great you were and how many awesome skills you had and how you'd beat everybody. Now…You're powerful. Very powerful. And you're skilled and smart. But you're not bragging about it. Actually, you haven't said much to me about yourself. Then you go and calmly admit that there's someone stronger, smarter, and who would probably make a better Kage than you and you aren't upset about it in the least. You're…Well, laid-back isn't the right word and mature sure as hell isn't..."

"Thank you," Naruto deadpanned.

"You're welcome," Ino chirped with smug grin. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she tried to come up with a word to describe the kitsune's new attitude. Deciding to take a direct approach, she reached across the stump and laid the fingers of both hands across the sides of the other genin's face.

"Uh, what're you doing?" Naruto asked in puzzlement. He nearly jumped at the first subtle brush on his mind.

"Shush up, I'm just getting a picture of your mind," Ino replied as her eyes turned teal and began to faintly glow.

"Uh, okay. You might wanna ask next time, seeing as how most people probably think it's rude to just jump into someone else's head," The kitsune replied in a dry tone. He didn't attempt to remove the girl's hands though. Her fingers were long and thin, but soft and pleasantly cool. They felt surprisingly comfortable on his face. As the presence in his mind wasn't setting off any instinctive alarms, he allowed the psychic girl to proceed.

Ino closed her eyes in concentration as she carefully sifted through Naruto's thoughts and surface memories. While she could read another person's mind from a distance, she only got a full and clear picture from close range and physical contact. As such, her first impression of the kitsune's mind was that it was both more organized and far messier than she had ever thought. Naruto's mind was hectic, there was no doubt about that. His thoughts were constantly racing here and there, bouncing between different ideas and briefly touching on a memory, then zipping off somewhere else. It was the same short attention span she had felt when she'd fought him a month ago. At the time, she had taken it as an insult, but now that she could see how his thoughts worked up close, she realized it was just the way he was wired. It seemed that he hadn't lost his hyper nature after all.

There was a second side to his mind and that's what surprised her with its organization. While the teen's surface thoughts raced, his deeper level thinking lurked, for lack of a better word. It was ready to move at an instant's notice, to apply focus on any given thought or memory within a second. This must have been what had given her such an icy shock with it's intensity when she'd activated the Chidori and again when he fought Kakashi several days ago. Despite its constant readiness, Ino couldn't call this part of Naruto's mind poised or tense. It was far too…well, relaxed wasn't the right word, but there was a distinct lack of tension that she would normally associate with being ever ready. It was simply…aware. It was always watching, but never reacting unless the situation warranted its involvement.

That's it. That's the word she was looking for.

"Calm. You're calm now," Ino spoke out loud. She opened her eyes briefly to meet Naruto's (ironically) calm gaze. "You're always ready, but you're not tense in the slightest. It's almost zen-like. Like one of those movies where the old monk preaches about inner harmony being key to becoming a true martial artist."

"Zen, huh?" The kitsune replied with a raised eyebrow. "I wouldn't say that. I just take life as it comes and change it when I need to. No need to complicate things too much."

"Hmm," Was all Ino replied, still convinced there was more to it than that. She closed her eyes again and refocused on the kitsune's mind.

The psychic girl almost jerked when she 'tripped' across a pothole in Naruto's brain.

Well, that was interesting. There were splits in the teens mind, in both the hyper and calm sections. In fact, tracing along them revealed a long series of tiny gaps in the mind of the genin that seemed almost like a stitched wound of some sort. It ran all throughout the boy's mind, dividing it almost exactly in half. No wonder the idiot was unhinged; his mind was split in two and only partially held together! The more she probed, the more Ino began to realize that Naruto's mind was not what she'd originally assumed it to be by any means. While it was overall unified and healthy, each gap revealed what seemed to be two radically different thought patterns that clashed with each other.

It was like Naruto had split personalities that were in conflict or his mind was a mixture of two that was still incomplete. As ludicrous as it sounded, the latter seemed to be the truth of the matter. It seemed as though two minds had merged into one, but hadn't been able to completely compromise in some places. Overall they worked together fine, but there shouldn't be a together. A mind should only be one uniform structure, not two trying to work as one.

Without even pausing to consider what she was doing, Ino concentrated on one gap in particular and encouraged it to mend together totally. It took only a few moments to end the conflict and smooth over the hole, but to the psychic girl it seemed to take twenty minutes. She nodded to herself when it was done and started to move on to another split when Naruto's sudden gasp caused her eyes to open.

"What are you doing?" Naruto asked as his eyes opened wide. It was like a tickling spider was carefully changing the web that was his mind.

"It doesn't hurt does it?" Ino asked in concern, though she didn't totally halt her self-appointed task.

"N-no…It doesn't hurt," The kitsune said with an uncharacteristic stutter. He shuddered a little as the girl repaired another conflict. It was tingly, like that weird feeling when he was really cold and got into a hot bath, only inside his head. It wasn't a bad feeling. but it was very strange.

"Do you want me to stop?" The psychic genin asked as she mended another gap. Almost immediately she found and healed another, causing Naruto's reply to halt in its tracks. His voice caught, then he quickly formed a new reply.

"…No, it's alrIGHT! …Alright, it's alright," Naruto managed to get out as one nudge sent a tingling shock through his brain. It was a weird feeling, to say the least, but in a way it was kind of nice. Ino had healed half a dozen splits already and now she was going back and reorganizing his thought patterns into what they should naturally be. In fact, she was even doing it to the normal sections of his brain as well. It was kind of nice, having his chaotic thoughts organized and tucked away in their proper place. It made thinking easier and more efficient, even if the process felt strange while it was going on. With every conflict the psychic girl mended, a mental ache he hadn't even been aware of was relieved. It was like getting rid off a deep headache that had been going on for so long he'd unconsciously forgotten about it.

"Good. Now relax and let me work," Ino ordered, though her voice was light.

The sun slowly rose in the sky as the two genins sat still in the shady grove. It was close to three hours later when Ino finally healed the last tear and completed reorganizing Naruto's mind overall. When the last little thought fragment was put in its natural place, she nodded in satisfaction and finally opened her eyes. They had already returned to their natural gray color, as the long use of her Bloodline (even on such a subtle level) had drained almost all of her chakra reserves. As it was, she was barely able to get her hands underneath her as she sagged backwards away from Naruto. The blonde girl shifted so her legs were stretched out across the grass next to the stump, relieving the cramping that had built up from sitting in one position for too long.

Naruto simply stared at her, a little awed by what she'd just done. His mind felt…whole. Smooth and efficient. It felt like a painful fog that he hadn't even noticed had been lifted from his thoughts. It was so much easier to think now, to consider and plan. It seemed Naruto's mind and the Kyuubi's hadn't fused as thoroughly as he'd originally thought. Amazing that this slip of a girl had gone in and not only completed the merging, but had done it perfectly and repaired any damage the strain had caused on his mind. It felt incredible. Ino had even gone so far as to sort the overload he'd been putting up with for the past few days. It would probably be a couple weeks before he had to meditate again. Hell, maybe he'd just ask Ino to mop up his mind again.

Hmm, no. It wouldn't do to become over dependent on her psychic support. It was doubtful he'd need it really. His mind was finally whole now, so it would be able to handle the mental stress the lack of full REM sleep and memory flashbacks imposed on him. Still, it would be nice if she'd clean his head every few months or so. The kitsune didn't see any problem with that.

"So…" Ino said, breaking Naruto's line of thought. She idly reached up to wipe a small line of sweat of her temple.

"So…" Naruto slowly replied. He paused a second, trying to figure out anything to say. "You cut your hair."

Ino reached a hand up and ran it through her neck length, pale blonde locks. She shrugged a little self-consciously and said, "It's actually a little longer than usual. I haven't had the chance to get it cut recently. Hatake made a pretty good point awhile back, and I agree with him, that long hair is a pretty big disadvantage in a fight. You uh…think it looks okay?"

Naruto watched the unbound strands of lemonade blonde hair gently wave about in the breeze and let a small smile come to his face.

""It looks nice," He said after a moment.

Normally such a simple response from a man would have had Ino raving, but the smile on the kitsune's face said far more than words.

"Your eyes have changed. They're…different now," The female genin said after a couple moments of watching her comrade.

"You think they look okay?" Naruto asked in a lightly teasing tone, his smile growing amused.

Ino stared at his incandescent, twilight-blue orbs for several moments, observing the shifts in color and their unnerving intensity.

"They look nice," She said after a moment, an amused but genuine smile growing to match the other genin's.

For several minutes they relaxed in companionable silence, broken only by the birds in the trees and the wind blowing through the canopy. Naruto let his mind wander for a bit and stared off into the distance for awhile. The air was beginning to get hot, making him savor their shade all the more.

"So…Are you going to tell me why you have memories thousands of years old or are you going to let me think you've been possessed by that damn fox," Ino suddenly spoke up, almost causing Naruto to jump. He stared at her for a moment, then shook his head at his own stupidity.

"I should've guessed," The half-demon ruefully shrugged. He asked curiously, "How much did you see?"

"Not that much. Your memories were actually pretty organized for the most part, so I didn't go into to them deeply," Ino answered. A slightly disturbed expression appeared on her face as she said, "I did see a few things though. Civilizations that don't exist. Animals that can't be real. Places that I've never seen even in my dreams. One of them I saw…I saw a canyon that was so big it seemed like a part of the earth had been knocked clean off into space. It went from horizon to horizon and the cliffs were so rugged and beautiful…I know there's no place remotely like that on the continent and you couldn't have too gone far on foot in a year. These memories aren't yours and I want to know what's going on."

Naruto got a far away look in his eyes and a strange little smile on his face as he called up the memory in question. Of the many memories he'd absorbed from the Kyuubi so far, it was his favorite, or at least a close second or third.

"The Grand Canyon, the most spectacular marvel of the desert southwest and the reason Arizona was on the map," The kitsune said with a nostalgic grin. At Ino's totally confused look he explained, "It's a massive rock formation in the middle of a rugged desert in a land far across the eastern ocean. The dominant civilization called the country America, though I have no idea what it was renamed after the Cataclysm. A very old and very close friend of mine claims that entire desert land as his home. He first showed me the canyon a hundred thousand years before the first humans came to that land. One of the few things the invaders did well was give it a proper name. Grand Canyon seems so simple, yet perfect, don't you think? Certainly better than Coyote's original name for it: 'The Biggest Pissing Hole On Earth.'"

"Arizona? Coyote?" Ino slowly repeated. She stared at Naruto for along moment, then said, "If I hadn't seen it myself, I'd lock you in a mental ward."

"Like they could keep me contained," The other genin replied with a dismissive wave.

"…So why do you have hundred thousand year old memories of the world's largest urinal?" The psychic girl sarcastically asked.

Naruto thought about it hard for a moment, then replied, "This is going to take awhile to explain."

"Extremely weird stories always do," Ino responded and settled back into a comfortable position to listen.

Tsunade strode through the halls of the lower sections of the Hokage Tower, forcing ninjas and aides to dive out of the way lest they get bowled over. Her face was expressionless, though her swift, powerful strides hinted that she wasn't pleased with something. As she moved past an open doorway, Shizune stepped out and hurried to keep up with her mentor.

"Do you have any idea why they called an emergency Council?" The young medic asked in a low voice as she leaned down towards Tsunade's ear.

"No, but it had better not be what I think it is," The Hokage growled back.

"You don't think it's about Naruto-kun, do you?" Shizune asked in a surprised voice. Her mentor took that tone only when someone was threatening or insulting her little brother. "They allowed him to become a genin on active duty again, didn't they? Why would they stir up trouble now?"

"They let him back on, but don't think for a minute that it's what they wanted to do," Tsunade answered as they turned a corner and passed through an ANBU checkpoint without slowing down.

"What do you think they'll do?" The younger medic asked.

"This is a full Council meeting. Most of the Clan Heads will be here too, so whatever it is will be big," The Fifth said. Her eyes darkened as she muttered, "Or at least in their pompous minds it'll be big."

Shizune fell silent as they approached the massive double doors leading to the main Council room. The guards bowed and opened them immediately, allowing both ninjas to pass through. The inner room was large, being almost two hundred feet wide and a hundred long. There were four rows of built in chairs forming a horizontal arc around the center of the room, where a podium stood. Behind it by about ten feet was a large chair (that somewhat resembled a judge's bench) elevated above the rest of the seats. It was to this seat that Tsunade strode towards, with Shizune following right behind as the Hokage walked down the stairs and past the Council members.

Tsunade took her seat in the Hokage's chair and looked out over the gathered Council and clan lords. The twelve Council members were all present in their wrinkled and/or gray glory. The Fifth carefully took note of their faces, getting a feel for their mood. Most of them held reserved looks, though a few seemed smug which immediately put her on guard.

"Tsunade-sama, look at Mitokado-sama," Shizune muttered in an extremely low tone from her position next to and slightly behind the Hokage.

"I see him," Tsunade replied as she let her eyes casually wander over to the old council member. Mitokado Homura stood out from the other Council members in that he didn't appear to be neutral or pleased.

He looked downright pissed.

Tsunade felt her guard rise further. Of the twelve Council members, three supported Naruto's return to Konoha. Homura was one of them. Trained alongside Sarutobi, he had kept his wits about him despite his many years. Like Tsunade, he knew that Naruto would play an enormous factor in the future of Konoha, for good or ill. Needless to say, he thought good was the better option and didn't want to alienate the demon-vessel. He considered it simple logic. The councilman had been a major supporter of Arashi's rise to the title of Yondaime as opposed to Orochimaru or one of the heads of the Hyuuga and Uchiha clans. He wasn't taken in by flashy Bloodlines, noble ancestry, or prodigal genius. Homura wanted only a few simple things for the man they'd entrust their lives with: genuine loyalty, a stable mind, and solid results.

Arashi was the only one who met that all of the criteria, therefore he was the one Homura backed for the title of Fourth. While the old councilman didn't control the voices of his colleagues, as a senior member and Sandaime's teammate he carried a large amount of influence over the other members. Both Arashi and Sarutobi had mentioned in their journals that many of their unpopular decisions wouldn't have been fully ratified had Homura not backed them up. Tsunade had been greatly relieved that he had decided to support her on the Naruto issue. That made her uphill battle a little leveler. With Naruto's general unpopularity, she needed all the allies she could get. Homura had only asked her if she honestly believed the Kyuubi was fully under control and had accepted her affirmative answer without further question. With the Leaf in such dire straits, the shrewd man wanted the demon's power on their side, even if it meant he earned the other Council members' displeasure.

The other two Council members who supported Naruto's reinstatement were wearing looks of displeasure as well. If they were pissed and the others were pleased, that could only mean the majority had concocted some scheme to get rid of the kitsune somehow.

Like Tsunade would let them get away with it, and right to her face no less.

"Alright, this meeting of the Fire Council will come to order. Spokesman, state the reason why this emergency has been called," The Fifth ordered, looking towards the gathered committee.

"We have come to order this day as we have received intelligence that an outlying farming community has been overrun by missing-nins, possible Sound-nins. They're estimated to be over twenty members strong, with several chuunin and at least two jounin present," One of the smug Council members said as he stood.

"Regrettable, but your point is what exactly? Dispatch Hunter-nin squads to take care of it," Tsunade replied in a dry tone.

"Unfortunately, Hokage-sama, the ANBU Commander has reported that all his squads are currently indisposed for the next several days," The man replied. He was unable to keep a slightly pleased tone out of his voice. Out of the corner of her vision, the Fifth saw Homura rolling his eyes through his glasses. The Sannin's sharp mind immediately caught onto the Council's gimmick. It seemed they had convinced the Commander to go in on it as well.

She was going to have words with that man later. Even ignoring her personal feelings on the matter, it was inexcusable for someone in a high ranking military position to allow himself to be coerced by a committee.

"I see. I'll arrange for a few standard teams to be dispatched to take care of the problem. If that is all…?" Tsunade said, clearly hinting that the matter was closed. As she knew he would, the spokesman immediately held up his hand to continue.

"If I may, Hokage-sama," The man said. His wrinkled lips kept twitching as he restrained himself from smiling in glee. "We are so shorthanded right now that the Council feels that we shouldn't move an unnecessary number of our nins away from Konoha. Therefore, we wish to have a single team go to deal with this issue."

"…I see. It would have to be an exceptional team to deal with such a large enemy force. I believe Gai's team is available at the moment. I know his students are more than capable of handling the average missing-nin," Tsunade replied, deliberately baiting the man into thinking she didn't see what his ploy was. She knew exactly what team he wanted to be sent.

"Actually, we feel Team 7 has the best skills to deal with this situation," The councilman said, finally allowing a satisfied smile to come to his face.

There it was, out in the open.

Tsunade was silent for almost a full minute, staring at the man with icy eyes and a neutral face that gave nothing away as to what she was thinking. The man felt his smile and sense of victory slowly slip away as the Fifth remained still as a statue. Even her student was expressionless. Neither gave a single reaction to the announcement. He was about to speak when Tsunade slowly stood up straight.

"Don't think for even an instant that I don't know what your little game is," The Godaime coldly said. The spokesman started to sputter in protest, but instantly fell silent when Tsunade fixed him with a glare that seemed to suck the air from his lungs. "Your petty feelings of vengeance have finally come to this: sending an innocent teenager and his equally innocent team into overwhelming odds to destroy something that has already been safely sealed."

Immediately a loud clamor erupted in the room.

"Innocent!" A voice roared out from the upper sections, temporarily drowning out the others.

"You do not have the right to speak here, Hiashi-san," Tsunade calmly said as she fixed her stare on the Hyuuga clan head. "This is a matter of the Council and myself to decide. Do not interrupt again."

"But Hokage-sama! That's not a child, it's the Kyuubi! It's the strongest demon on this world! We should take the opportunity to destroy it completely!" The pale man yelled, ignoring Chomaru's attempts to get him to calm down. More than a few voices yelled out their agreement.

A loud crack that stung the ears echoed sharply throughout the room. Everyone in the room jumped and fell dead silent at the sight of the utterly shattered table in front of Tsunade. The Sannin slowly pulled her hand back from her casual display of strength and stepped around the wreckage.

"Hyuuga Hiashi, you've just broken the Third's biggest law. Since you obviously have strong feelings on this matter, I'll ignore this incident this one time. However…" The Fifth said in an emotionless voice. Her eyes narrowed and Hiashi felt the hairs on his neck prickle as he found himself the focus of a very deadly killing intent. "If you ever break the rule laid down by my sensei and friend again, not only will I strip you of all authority outside of your clan, I will personally demonstrate what kind of agony the inventor of 1000 Years of Pain can inflict upon you."

Everyone flinched. She invented that hellish technique?

"Escort him out of the Tower," Tsunade ordered to the guards. To the Hyuuga head, she said, "As punishment for this incident, you are banned from all Council meetings for the next two months. I suggest you use that time to think about your morals, Hiashi-kun."

The Clan Lord paled, then turned red with fury. His hand twitched, chakra automatically flowing into his fingertips. It was very hard not to wipe the look off that arrogant woman's face. She acted liked she was better than him, better than the Hyuu-

An icy wave of killing intent so powerful it felt like a bucket of freezing water slammed into Hiashi's senses. The pale man choked back a gasp of shock and stared wide eyed at the Hokage. The goading look in her eyes was all the proof he needed of the aura's source.

Of course she thought she was better than him. She was better than him. Tsunade was a Sannin, for Kami's sake! Was he insane? Assuming the ANBU didn't nail him from all angles before he reached her, the Fifth was more than capable of taking him out with ease.

This wasn't at all like dealing with Sarutobi. Tsunade bit back.

As the guards led the clan lord away, Tsunade refocused her attention on the Council and remaining clan leaders. Several flinched at the furious look in her eyes.

"That goes for each and every one of you. I don't care how powerful you think you are, if any of you break Sandaime's law I will strip you of all rank at the very least. I may even be inclined to have the Kazekage open up Wind Prison again," She ordered in a voice full of venom. Many more of audience flinched at that comment.

Not a soul on the continent wanted a thing to do with the Wind Country's shinobi prison. The only shinobi prison in history that had never had a single prisoner escape.

"Now then, as for this latest game the Fire Council has cooked up, I will only say that all you have done here is begun to unravel your own power," The Fifth stated in a cold voice as she walked towards the podium. Not a single Council member said a word as she met the gazes of each and every one of them. "By attempting to place a fifteen year old genin in a situation that he can't survive solely for vengeance, you have proven yourselves unfit to make unbiased judgments."

Most of the Council jumped to their feet and began yelling at the Hokage, though the three on the end made no reaction.

"QUIET!" Tsunade roared, easily drowning out all their voices and silencing every dissenting person. Not even the most angry Council member could meet the look of fury in her eyes. "Do you realize that not only are you tying to kill a valuable and innocent teenager, you are also sacrificing two loyal and extremely skilled ninjas along with him. Yamanaka Ino is being hailed as the next prodigy of her generation and everyone knows who Hatake Kakashi is and his priceless value to the Leaf. In a time of war, you would be willing to destroy three of our strongest shinobi for the sake of a fifteen year old grudge. You are not fit to be in power. I can't remove you for now, but I promise you will not be in office for more than a year, one way or the other."

Tsunade slowly cracked her neck from side to side before she spoke again. It was a habit she'd picked up from Naruto and she had to admit it was handy as body language. It certainly kept each shocked man and woman on the Council further off balance.

"That said, the mission will go ahead, though there will be a strict condition," The Fifth casually continued.

She held back a smirk at the confused faces. The spokesman cautiously stood up.

"Hokage-sama," His tone was definitely more respectful now and more than a little hesitant. "You are willing to allow the mission to continue?"

"I am," Tsunade calmly replied, crossing her arms over her ample chest.

The man glanced at some of his colleagues, then back up at her. He hesitantly asked, "Then what is your condition?"

"That if Team 7 passes this little 'test', no further attempts like this will be made on Uzumaki Naruto or anyone who associates with him. Furthermore, Naruto himself will not answer to any of you, only to myself and his immediate commander chosen by me. His activities will remain confidential and you will not make any attempts to discover their true nature. All of his records will be sealed, again only accessible by me or someone I directly authorize," Tsunade stated in a level tone. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of Naruto's supporters mutter something into Homura's ear. He nodded to the woman's comment and they both inclined their heads at the Hokage in approval.

Tsunade refocused her attention on the Council majority, who were muttering energetically amongst themselves, obviously weighing the possibility of losing control over the demon-vessel against the chance that he might be killed off for good. After a couple minutes of low debate, the spokesman finally nodded at them and stood again to face the Fifth.

"We accept your conditions, Hokage-sama. Should the Kyu-…Uzumaki survive this mission, the Fire Council will relinquish all authority over him and leave him in your hands," The councilman said.

"I'll have my conditions in writing signed by you before Team 7 goes anywhere," Tsunade calmly replied.

"Hokage-sama, if we may…Why are you agreeing to this at all?" The man spoke up. The rest of the Council watched the Hokage, curious about her answer.

Tsunade finally allowed a slow, pleased smirk to grow on her face. Well, this was a nicely reversed trap. All it needed now was for Naruto and Kakashi to pull through on their end and it would be perfectly sprung.

"Because, to put it simply, none of you know a damn thing about Uzumaki Naruto and you've just proven it," She said, allowing her grin to grow at the shocked looks appearing on some of the smarter Council members' faces. The Sannin restrained her smirk a little as she inclined her head and said, "Gentlemen and women, this meeting is adjourned."

As the Hokage and her student left the room, somehow the Fire Council felt like they'd been played for suckers by the legendary herself.

"That's a hell of a story," Ino quietly said as she advanced three squads of ANBU over a ridge. She spared her opponent a quick glance and said, "How many memories have you absorbed?"

"About a thousand individual ones automatically. I've searched out about two hundred more on my own," Naruto replied as he calmly withdrew a line of chuunins back from a small plain. He allowed himself a bit of a smile when he saw the other genin falling for his trap. He casually hid several Hunter-nins behind the trees lining the field and waited. "Considering a human mind alone would have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of memories that's not very much overall. I've barely scratched the surface of the Kyuubi."

"What kind of stuff do you search for?" The psychic girl asked as she charged several teams of jounins and chuunins after Naruto's retreating chuunins. Though this was interesting, she was more interested in the kitsune's answers. Anything that had to do with the mind fascinated her, for obvious reasons.

"Anything really. New jutsu, strange places I've never been, scientific knowledge, something fun to re-experience…That kind of stuff," Naruto replied with a shrug. He smiled to himself and suddenly sprang his ambush. Ino let out a wail of dismay as jounins using earth type jutsu erupted from the ground in the middle of her small army, scattering the ranks. She retreated them to the forest line only to be cut off by Hunter-nins. Then the retreating chuunins suddenly reversed directions and became reinforcements for the main attack force. Her soldiers were gone in seconds.

"Shit. That's the fifth time you've beaten me," Ino cursed as she waved her hand over the scroll spread across the stump. The 3D terrain map rippled and reset while changing to a new scenario.

"Ero-sennin had me doing these things for hours every day for over a year, so I'm pretty damn used to them by now. I think we only have two more scenarios on this scroll though. I'll have to get his lazy butt up to make me some more," The kitsune said as he quickly took stock of his forces. He and Jiraiya had modified the Sannin's situation puzzle scrolls into a two player strategy game. 'Kage vs. Kage' was tricky to get used to as the player had to be quick thinking and was limited by a fog of war simulation. Still, it was surprisingly accurate and was great fun while helping with tactics and strategies. It wasn't as thought provoking as Jiraiya's puzzles, but Naruto worked on those as well to prevent himself from getting lax.

"You still kicked my ass…" The psychic girl groaned as she quickly set up several supply lines to her main camp. Then again, she was also fighting against a demon lord, from what her comrade had told her. It was to be expected that he'd be better at directing armies than she would be. The Kyuubi hadn't gotten to be top dog on luck alone.

…Her interest was a demon lord.

Oh Kami, now she could never go to that counselor her mother had been wanting her to see for months. That would be a very bad idea. Besides, being half-demon was kind of like a…character flaw. Yes, that was it. Everybody had to have a flaw that made them more human…uh, less human…whatever. She'd already known about the Kyuubi and accepted that, so this wasn't a too huge of a change to get used to. Seriously, if she could have a crush on a pink-haired wimp with an overlarge forehead or a broody, cold-hearted brat riding a vengeance kick, what was wrong with seeing a hyperactive ramen fiend fused with a primordial demon lord as a potential comrade/friend/boyfriend?


…Ah hell, Shikamaru was right. Her head was a total piece of work that would give sane people nightmares to even peek inside (to be fair though, he had said that right after she'd finished verbally castrating him so the Nara genius wasn't being very objective at the time…)

For several minutes, the genins played their game in silence intermittently broken by Ino's outraged yells and Naruto's amused chuckles. When the blonde girl finally admitted defeat after five minutes, she pushed the scroll back at the other genin with a huff of disgust. It rolled itself up as it fell in his lap and the illusion disappeared in a few swirls of light.

"Uhg…Defeat again," Ino grumbled as she leaned back on her hands. She pouted for a moment, then asked the kitsune, "Are there any bad side-effects of absorbing the fox's…uh, your…whatever, the memories?"

Naruto carefully tucked the scroll into his side pouch, then looked up to answer.

"You saw some of it when you were in my head. I can't sleep much, so I can't digest the knowledge properly and it overloads my brain. My brain is built to handle the stress for the most part, but while I won't go insane, I still get headaches and it makes me irritable overall," The half-demon replied. "When I deliberately search for memories, it screws up my chakra usage for a few hours. Not to mention when I come out of it, I'm nearly crippled by the pain in my head."

"You mean like a seizure or a stroke?" Ino asked, sudden worry spread across her face.

"No. At least, I don't think so. It wouldn't really matter if it was," Naruto answered with a dismissive shrug. "As long as it doesn't kill me instantly, I'll survive almost anything. I found out the hard way that I can heal brain and nerve damage as well as muscle and skin. It drains more chakra, but it can be done. No, the pain comes from the mental stress of maintaining the demon seal to safely search the Kyuubi's memories. Think of it like deep sea diving. There're so many memories that it puts a huge amount of pressure on my mind, so I have to apply equal pressure back to keep from crushed. The mind seal levels the playing field mostly, but it still strains my willpower horribly."

"So you're a deranged mess afterwards?" The psychic girl dryly asked.

"More like enfeebled with agony, but yeah I'm a total mess when I pull out of the memory reservoir. I avoid it usually, unless there's something specific I need that the fox might have known," The other genin calmly answered.

"Hmm…Interesting to know," Ino muttered to herself thoughtfully. Maybe when she practiced her Bloodline, he might be willing to…Well, something for another day.

"Hatake is pretty late today, isn't he?" Naruto said out of the blue. Ino glanced up at the sky, shaking her head to get her hair out of her eyes, and looked at the sun's position through the canopy. It was noon or very close to it.

"You're right, he is. That's odd. He's usually not late anymore and even at his worst he was never this bad," The pretty genin said as she looked back at the kitsune. "What do you think is keeping him?"

Naruto's face slowly grew a smirk so wicked it wouldn't be out of place on his demonic predecessor.

"I have no idea, Ino-san. None whatsoever," He said in a monotone with an expression so innocent he had to be guilty.

Ino stared at him for a minute, then suspiciously said, "This wouldn't have anything to do with those crows earlier, would it?"

"Of course not," Naruto replied, his wicked face saying otherwise.

"Exactly what did you two talk about the other day?" The other genin asked.

"Redistribution of available resources," The kitsune promptly answered. When Ino narrowed her eyes and focused on his thoughts, Naruto stuck his tongue out at her and said, "Too late! I'm not thinking about it anymore."

"Ass!" The psychic girl yelled and chucked a pinecone at his head.

"Relax, Ino-san, you'll find out eventually," Naruto calmly said. "Whenever Hatake gets around to-"



"See? There he is right now."

Ino blinked. What were the odds her sensei would show up right now as they were talking about him?

"You're late," The pretty genin calmly said to her teacher, who was comfortably crouched on a low branch of a nearby tree.

"Yeah, about that…It seems someone," Kakashi leveled a glare at Naruto, who returned it with a neutral look, "Summoned an enormous murder of crows, fed them a huge amount of rotten meat, and had them swarm over my house for four hours."

"Wait…If they just ate…Ewww," Ino said, catching on quickly and wrinkling her nose in disgust.

Kakashi nodded (though he didn't break off his glare at Naruto) and said, "There's a layer of bird poop covering my entire house and lawn. Nobody was able to get a hold of me in time and it hardened in the sun. So now there's a layer of petrified bird poop covering my house and lawn. The stench is so horrible they can smell it up near the Hokage Tower. I had to beg Gai to take me in for a few days while some genin teams clean everything off."

"Well, sucks to be you," Naruto casually said, still not showing the slightest trace of guilt. He narrowed his eyes in return and said, "Speaking of Gai, did you come through on our deal or not?"

"Yes, actually. While you were arranging for a quarter ton of feces to be dumped on my home, I managed to barter Gai into transferring Lee onto Team 7. I was on my way to tell you the good news when I saw the huge swarm over my street," Kakashi said in an annoyed tone.

Naruto appeared to think it over for a moment, then shrugged sheepishly.


"Wow. Are you vengeful or what?" Ino said a couple hours later as she walked alongside Naruto. She shifted her backpack slightly and grumbled a little at the dust being kicked up from the road.

"Comes with the title, 'Demon'," Kakashi dryly said. He was walking a few paces ahead of the two genins as they traveled towards northeastern Fire Country.

"Consider it a final act of retribution, Hatake-san," Naruto calmly replied. "You're smart enough to learn from past mistakes. I doubt I'll see the need or feel the urge to…reprimand you again."

"That's what you're calling pranks these days?" Ino asked with a raised eyebrow.

Naruto only grinned at her in response. Focusing on Kakashi again, he asked, "When did you say Gai was going to let Lee join officially?"

"In couple of days or whenever we get back from this mission, whichever comes first," The copy-nin replied over his shoulder. "I don't think Lee is taking the separation very well."

"I doubt Gai is either, for that matter," Ino muttered. She really wasn't sure of her opinion on Lee joining Team 7.

Pro: He had power out the ass. (Good sparring partner. Good backup on missions.)

Con: Youth power. (Enough said.)

"Well, it's not like they won't see each other anymore, considering they live together. And besides, Lee will still have personal training sessions with Gai every day we don't have team practice or aren't on a mission," Kakashi casually said.

"They live together? Why?" Ino asked curiously.

Her sensei didn't answer in words. He merely gave a look towards Naruto. The male genin caught on quickly enough

"Me. Lee was one of the children orphaned the day I attacked Konoha," The kitsune replied in a carefully neutral tone. "I'll bet he lived in an orphanage for awhile, then Gai probably took him in when he caught his eye."

"Yes, from what Gai told me that's how it happened," Kakashi said. He glanced back at Naruto and stared at him for a moment, then said, "I wouldn't feel too bad Naruto. Lee and Gai couldn't be happier living together, regardless of the dark circumstances that pushed them at each other."

"Yeah…" The half-demon quietly said. This wouldn't do. By his honor system, he owed Lee a massive debt and the Kyuubi always paid his debts, if nothing else (though not always in the way others felt…fair.) Fortunately he had some idea of how to repay it, to a certain degree. He doubted the weird boy would hesitate to accept his offer.

A thought occurred to him and he quickly asked, "Hey Hatake-san…Exactly what did you offer Gai that got him to accept?"

Kakashi grimaced as he answered, "For the next two years I have to train with him whenever he wants, I can't ignore him when he's raving about youth power, I have to 'duel' with him at least once a week, and I have to be his…fashion model whenever he goes to that crackpot tailor of his."

Both the genin's eyes bugged out of their skulls an instant before they exploded in laughter. The copy-nin was not amused at all and made his displeasure known by whirling around and whacking his subordinates on their heads. Even when squawking indignantly, both blondes took note of the embarrassed flush on their jounin's cheeks before he could turn around and hide it.

Things were quiet for a couple minutes, barring the exception of a couple sniggers from the genins. Growing bored with tormenting her sensei, Ino glanced over at her new teammate and asked, "Why did you demand Lee for our team anyways?"

"I have my personal reasons, but the one that makes the most sense is simple: he's the strongest of our crowd," Naruto answered, his eyes drifting over the lush green trees that lined the dirt road they were walking on.

"The strongest? But you almost kicked Hatake's ass! And I'm no pushover either," The psychic girl immediately exploded.

"You also forgot Neji. He's become quite powerful these last couple years," Kakashi commented, looking back at Naruto curiously.

"Neji will never exceed Lee," The kitsune answered in a calm, confident voice. At both of his teammate's surprised looks, he smiled a little and explained, "I don't have to be here to know that, you know. Lee was already far more powerful than Neji when I left Konoha and his drive to get stronger only grew after Sasuke's defection. He's probably low jounin level by now at the very least. I'd wager he could be a junior ANBU if he felt the urge and had the patience."

"But Neji seemed powerful in the exams," Ino said, slightly confused. "And Gaara crippled Lee pretty thoroughly."

"Neji beat the shit out of a wallflower and lost to the dead last. How is that impressive?" Naruto said in a sharp voice, though the other genin could sense his ire wasn't directed at her or Kakashi. "He can stab specific pressure points with his Bloodline and can make a brief shield of chakra. Whoopdey-freaking-doo. He wouldn't be able to land a single blow on Lee to make any use of his family tai-jutsu and Lee could bash right through the Kaiten once he started opening the Gates. And while Gaara may have crippled Lee, he would have killed Neji. Be wary of falling for the glamour of a prodigy, my friend. They rarely live up to the image they project."

Ino stared at Naruto for a long moment, then laughed out loud.

"I had a very similar conversation with Hatake there a month or so ago," She said to answer the half-demon's confused expression. "You two are a lot alike in many ways."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Naruto and Kakashi said at the same time. They glanced at each other, gave identical shrugs, and casually walked on in similar relaxed strides.

Ino paused and stared at them with something akin to horror. She'd only been joking, really.

That was just creepy.

"Anyways, I guess you make a pretty good point," The pretty genin said, shaking off the weirdness. "And Lee, for all his oddity, is a lot easier to get along with than Neji."

"Very true," Both of her teammates said in stereo. They didn't even bother to look at each other this time. Ino forced herself not to shiver. She smiled a little as a more pleasant thought distracted her.

"So I'm your friend, huh?" The psychic genin said with a sly grin as she looked over at her new teammate.

Naruto gave her an appraising look followed by a strange little smile. He said in a light tone, "I suppose you are."

"You only suppose? You don't know for sure?" Ino asked with an amused smirk. The kitsune stuck his tongue out at her.

"Settle down children," Kakashi ordered. "We should pick up the pace. I want to get at least another twenty miles before we make camp."

"Where is this place again?" Ino asked as they sped up to bounding leaps down the road

"I'll give you guys the full run down," Her sensei replied. He took on the authoritative commander's tone that both genins knew well. "From the intelligence gathered, approximately twenty eight hours ago, a missing-nin force attacked one of our outlying farming villages that's close to the Sound border. We know what happened because one of the children managed to escape undetected and wandered into the path of one of our patrols. The girl was hysterical, as her entire family and most of the villagers were massacred right in front of her. It took awhile, but our nins were able to calm her down enough to get some info out of her. From what she saw, many of the ninjas had scratched headbands and at least two had forehead protectors inscribed with a musical note."

"Orochimaru," Naruto hissed. His eyes turned a malevolent red for several seconds.

"Yes, unless they're traitors and are stupid enough to try to carve their own country between the Leaf and the Sound," Kakashi replied, his eyebrow raising when he glanced back and saw the changes in his subordinate's irises. When they returned to normal, the Copy-ninja continued, "I don't think they're traitors though. Only a damn fool would openly oppose two powerful military nations like this. It's probably a strike under Orochimaru's orders. Most likely part of his psychological campaign against the Leaf."

"Bah. Only a weakling attacks civilians. A truly powerful individual would ignore them, unless it was a ploy to get to something else," Naruto growled back.

"True, but Orochimaru gets off on tormenting people in general and I hear he has a special hatred for the Leaf. It'd be just like him to order his goons to attack defenseless farmers just because he felt like it," Ino said, her eyes widening a little at the dark thoughts she was picking up from her teammate, mostly about what he'd ever do if he could get his hands on the Snake-sennin for more than five minutes.

Demon indeed.

"We have a plan?" Naruto asked as he forced his vengeful thoughts down.

"We'll be within five miles when we stop for the night. We'll rest up, then in the morning we'll scout them out and probably strike about noon," Kakashi answered. His exposed eye traced the passing trees in a deceptively casual manner.

"Any tactics you guys prefer that I should know about?" The kitsune curiously asked.

"Well, both of us can anticipate our opponent's moves in different ways and Ino-chan here can use some extremely powerful gen-jutsu to immobilize or confuse opponents. Usually she's my backup, breaking up numbers or delaying enemies to give me an advantage," The copy-nin replied after thinking it over for a second.

"So where do you want me, Hatake-san?" Naruto questioned.

Kakashi turned around in the middle of a jump and began keeping pace backwards while giving the genin one of his eye-smiles.

"So you're going to listen to my orders, huh?" The jounin lightly teased.

"I said you were an ass who played favorites," Naruto dryly replied and not even blinking at his commander's acrobatic display. "I never said you weren't a competent leader."

"I'm touched," Kakashi said, beaming like his head was a light bulb.

"Idiot," Ino and Naruto said at the same time. This time it was the copy-nin who blinked at the odd stereo effect.

"Anyways, tell me a bit about your new skills and abilities. I'll figure out a position to put you in from that," The jounin ordered. It was a good excuse to satisfy his curiosity about Naruto's arsenal, as well as serving a practical purpose.

"I've learned probably twenty or so new practical nin-jutsu while I was training with Ero-sennin. From the fusion, I've gained a couple tricks the fox had, as well as enhancing my healing to insane levels," The half-demon began, scrunching up his nose in thought. "I've also learned several archaic or otherwise unknown jutsu that are very handy. I've finally learned an actual tai-jutsu style. Let's see…I also know a hell of a lot about a variety of seals, including a set only five beings in existence know. That's pretty much it, as far as I can remember anyways."

"A tai-jutsu style, huh? Good, very good. That was a major weak point for you before you left," Kakashi muttered thoughtfully, scratching his masked chin while leaping backwards.

"Hatake-san, if you steal my fighting style, you and I will be enemies till one of use is dead," Naruto suddenly said in a dead serious voice.

"Wha-? Naruto I wouldn't, I swear! I won't betray your trust like that," Kakashi immediately protested, holding his hands up.

"It's not just that," The kitsune said, shaking his head. "The man who taught it to me made me swear on my eternal honor that I would never teach it to anyone and I would kill anyone who managed to steal or copy even a portion of it. The only exception would be one of my children, if I ever have any. I'd be honor bound to either kill you, use some sort of memory jutsu to destroy the knowledge from your brain, or die trying either."

Both Kakashi and Ino stared at Naruto in shock. Not just that he was honor bound like that, but that he was taking it so seriously.

"But why is honor such a big deal to you, Naruto?" Ino asked after a moment.

"Not Naruto," The kitsune in question replied.

"The Kyuubi," Kakashi said, realization appearing in his eye. "Some of the old legends speak of the great demons. Some say that a lord will trick, con, and lie to any mortal they please, but if they truly give their word of honor they won't ever break it."

"Very close," Naruto answered, looking to his backwards jumping commander. "It's not a matter of won't, it's can't. If I swear on my honor as a Demon Lord, I cannot break my oath no matter how hard I try. The absolute best I can do is to bend it, as much as the wording will allow me to. I swore, word for word, that I would 'defend the secrets of the Impact Ruin Style with everything I have, up to my life if necessary.' I can bend the rules by, say, using a memory destroying jutsu or having Ino take it out of someone's head, but it's not an option of whether I can ignore it or not, even if it's accidental."

"I see," Kakashi said thoughtfully. He gave Naruto an eye-smile and a thumbs up with one hand. "Don't worry about it then, Naruto. I swear I won't deliberately steal it from you. If I do so by accident, then we can see if Ino-chan can remove it."

"Good," The kitsune said in obvious relief. "I really don't want to kill you. Or be killed by you."

"Same here," The jounin said with an amused smile under his mask. Turning a little serious, he said, "Okay, so you have a very unique setup for your skills and abilities. Unfortunately, I haven't seen most of them in live combat, so I don't really know where to put you. You're smart enough to know your own strengths. Where do you think you should go?"

Naruto frowned and let his eyes drift off to the sides of the road and the trees beyond while he thought. After several moments, he firmly answered, "The tank. Right in the middle, in the heaviest combat."

Kakashi's eye widened at the suggestion. He asked, "What's your logic? I know you're far more durable than most ninjas twice your age, but even with that and the clone defense you're just asking to get killed."

"Two major reasons," The half-demon said. He held up a finger and said, "One, like you said, I'm durable. I can take lots of punishment and heal up my injuries almost as fast our enemies can inflict them. Ino-san here can vouch for that."

"It's true," The psychic girl said when her sensei looked to her. "I nailed him with a Chidori right into his stomach. He healed all of the damage in less than half a minute."

"Impressive, but still…" Kakashi muttered, not wanting his comrade to get killed right after he got back. Or at any point in time, for that matter. He suddenly raised an eyebrow and looked sharply at Ino. "What do you mean you nailed him with a Chidori?"

"Uh…" The psychic girl intelligently replied, wearing an 'Oh shit' expression on her face. "Err…I mean, Sasuke nailed him with a Chidori once and he healed up from it fine. It's stands to reason that his healing rate would have only increased since then."

"Uh huh," Her sensei sarcastically said, crossing his arms over her chest. He decided to let it go for now, but there would be words exchanged with his student later.

He would not create another Uchiha Sasuke.

"Trust me, Hatake-san," Naruto broke, trying to be serious while fighting the urge to laugh at Ino's expense. His distraction tactic worked and Kakashi turned his attention back to him as the kitsune continued, "I've been on many missions before and this is the role I play best. I'll live if I get run through the gut with a katana. You two won't. Without a medic-nin, our team can't risk major damage. It makes sense to have the guy who can soak lethal amounts of damage to be in the frontline so the attention is on him and not the people who lack freaky demonic regeneration."

"Alright, you have a point, but I'm still not convinced," The Copy-ninja grudgingly admitted. "What's your other reason?"

"Most of my jutsu and abilities are short to medium range. Ino can attack from a distance easily. I'm sure you have more ranged attacks then I do and more experience using them. I won't be able to do as much from the back lines anyways, unless I mob the place with clones…which I can do from any position," The genin stated.

Kakashi frowned under his mask as he considered the kitsune's logic. It was pretty sound, all things considered. They would need someone to directly attack anyways and while the jounin himself usually filled that role, it would be smarter to use to ninja who could bounce back from huge damage as opposed to one who can't. Still, it wouldn't feel right. Not just sending a genin and a comrade into an almost certainly lethal position, but the copy-nin was used to fighting up front. It was his preferred position as well and he didn't like sitting on the sidelines if he could avoid it.

"Alright, you'll be up front, but I'll be right next to you," Kakashi said in a tone that broke no argument. "I'm an elite jounin for Kami's sake and that's my position of choice. Besides, most of my skills are short to mid range as well. I can attack from long range of course, but I'm most efficient up front."

"Are you sure we'll be able to fight well beside each other? We've never done it before," Naruto calmly pointed out. He wasn't protesting; it was just a good idea to point out potential flaws in a plan.

"We'll be fine. I have plenty of experience and you've always been adaptable, so I have no fear of us compensating during a fight," The jounin replied without hesitation.

Naruto nodded in agreement to his commander's assessment. A wicked grin grew on his face as he said, "Assuming we have anyone to fight once our enemies realize they're up against Copy-ninja Kakashi and the Kyuubi no Kitsune."

"We'll put the fear of Kami in them," The jounin replied with an amused tone.

"Or Tsunade-nee-chan. I'm not sure who I'd be more afraid of," The kitsune said in return.

Ino simply rolled her eyes and muttered, "Men."

"Ah, come on Ino-chan!"

"We're not that bad are we?"

"Yes," The psychic girl deadpanned. Kakashi grasped his chest and pretended to be struck by a mortal blow as Naruto started adding silly twirls and spins to his jumps.

"You wound me! My own student!"

"Join us, Ino-san. You know you want to, muhahahaha!"

"That's a nice diabolical laugh you have there, Naruto."

"Why thank you, Hatake-san. I do try my best."

"Would you be willing to share the secret to your success?"

"Well, being an evil spawn of Hell helps."

Ino barely resisted the urge to tear her hair out as her sensei and new teammate began to laugh maniacally together.

Idiots. Why was she always surrounded by idiots?

Ino got comfortable on her sleeping bag as she watched the small fire burn cheerfully. The sun had sunk past the horizon and the last traces of light were disappearing from the sky. Little pinpricks of light could be seen over the dark and shadowy forms of the large pine trees they were camped under. The firelight reflected off the dry pine needles that spread across the ground like a prickly carpet. The psychic girl was idly playing with one of the brown needles as she watched Kakashi and Naruto set up their sleeping mats. By circumstance or design, they'd each set up their spots to bed down for the night in a near perfect triangle around the fire, with roughly the same distance between them.

Well, ninjas can be excused for their paranoia.

"So is there anything else we need to know about this mission?" Naruto asked Kakashi.

"Just that we anticipate heavy resistance. There wasn't any hint of the normal cannon fodder the Sound uses, so these will be fully trained shinobi. Many chuunins and I'll bet my money on at least two or three jounins to keep them in line," The copy-nin answered as he sat down on his bag.

"What's the rank?" Ino spoke up with an eager tone.

"Still A Rank, Ino-chan," Kakashi replied, his eye twinkling in amusement. He laughed when the genin let out an unladylike curse. At Naruto's confused look, he explained, "Ever since she tangled with you a month ago, she's been itching to get at least one S Rank mission to her name. I think you've created a monster, Naruto."

Ino blushed a little and muttered, "Oh, shut up Hatake…"

"Ino-san, be grateful you haven't had to deal with one yet," Naruto said in a serious tone. Seeing that he had the girl's attention, he continued, "S Ranks are monsters and that's likely what you'd be fighting. You've already heard of Orochimaru, but have you heard of Akatsuki? Both the snake-freak and most of the cloak-freaks are S Rank missing-nins. Believe me, not all of them will fall prey to your Bloodline. You need more experience and a hell of a lot more training before you even accompany a team on an S Rank."

Ino grimaced at the implication that she was still weak, missing the kitsune's point. Looking over at Naruto, she said, "But you said yourself that you've done eleven so far."

"I was working with a team, Ino-san, and a very good one at that. I'm also not a normal human being. Despite your Bloodline Limit, you are," The half-demon calmly answered. "Even I wouldn't take an S Rank by myself and even for most A Ranks I'd request backup. Hell, if Nee-chan ever gave me one I'd probably go through the entire Rookie 9 and their jounin senseis asking for someone to come with me before I set out by myself. Even jounins can be hell to take down and an S Rank missing-nin is simply a nightmare to fight."

The psychic girl's face fell. She rested her chin on her knees and stared into the fire quietly.

Sensing the reason for his comrade's silence, Naruto spoke up again, "I'm not saying you're weak, Ino-san. I'm saying you're just not ready yet. But you will be strong enough some day and it's better to grow patiently than getting killed because you mistakenly got in over your head. I know Hatake-san and I both wouldn't want that to happen."

"He's right, Ino-chan," Kakashi quietly said. "My sensei didn't let me take my first S Rank mission until I was a jounin for two years. Thank the Kami Arashi-sensei knew my limits better than I did. I still almost got killed the first time I went up against an S Rank missing-nin. Had I gone on a mission of that level any sooner, I would've definitely died."

"And you were what, almost seventeen or so?" Naruto asked the jounin.

"Almost eighteen, actually," The Copy-ninja replied. To his student, he said, "See? I've been hailed as a genius for my whole life and even I didn't take one until I was three years older than you."

"Our point is, don't try to go too far too fast," The kitsune added. "There's no shame in waiting until you're strong enough to meet a challenge. There'll always be powerful assholes in the world, Ino-san. You'll get you're chance to kill as many as you want soon enough. You'll probably get your fill of them pretty quickly too."

"Kami knows I have," Kakashi grumbled. "There's nothing quite like the stress of constantly fighting people who can kill you in half a second to wear on your nerves. What I'd give for a chance to take a vacation for awhile. A month or two in one of the southern islands would be wonderful."

"Not likely to happen while Orochimaru is alive," Naruto growled. The Sannin's name left his mouth in a dark hiss. He shook off his dark mood and perked up a bit. "Hey, that'd be a great idea! As soon as the war is over and everything settles down some, Team 7 should get some time off to go to the southern lands. We could swing by Wave Country on the way and say hi to Tanzuna-san and Tsunami-chan."

"Sorry, Uzumaki, but political ties with Wave Country are pretty bad right now. And I heard the southern islands are limiting all access to shinobi from now on," Ino finally spoke up. A little bit of spark came back to her eyes as she told her teammate about the political news.

"Shit…Well, screw the southern islands," Naruto declared. He grinned and said, "I got a better place to go to anyways. And they don't give a rat's ass who comes and goes through their village."

"Where?" Kakashi asked, curious about what the heck the genin was talking about.

"Let's just say there's no better place in the world for a good night's sleep," The kitsune replied with a bit of a fox-grin. "I'm not gonna say anymore and ruin the surprise."

"Uh…Okay," The jounin said. Who knew where the damn brat had gotten off to while he'd been gone. "Anyways, we better get some sleep. It'll be a huge fight in the morning. Who wants first watch?"

"One of you two. I'm going go do some scouting," Naruto said as he looked up through the branches and saw that every trace of the sun was gone.

"Naruto, stealth has never been your forte and I don't want our cover blown just yet. It'd be better-" Kakashi was interrupted when the kitsune held a placating hand up.

"Relax, Hatake-san," He said as he walked to the edge of the small camp. He gave the copy-nin a confident grin and said, "They won't see, hear, or even smell me."

Kakashi frowned under his mask, not liking what the genin was about to do. His instincts, though, said to trust the other shinobi's skill. And they did need some fresh surveillance by a professional ninja rather than the day old, panicked descriptions of a small child.

"Alright, but don't take any hostile action. I want them as unprepared tomorrow as they're going to get. Scout them out, then get back here," The Copy-ninja ordered.

Naruto grinned at the reply, then said, "I'll be back in a few hours."

With that, he was gone like he'd melted into the shadows.

"Doesn't take no for an answer, does he?" Ino dryly asked, shifting on her sleeping bag to look at her teacher.

"You have absolutely no idea, Ino-chan. None at all," Kakashi replied in a weary tone. He glanced up and said, "I'll take the first watch. I won't rest well until he's back anyways. You get some rest and take over for us both when he gets back."

Used to switching off in the middle of the night from all the out of country missions they'd been on in the last year, Ino didn't argue and stretched out on top of her bag. In minutes she was asleep and Kakashi was alone with his thoughts, staring into the fire.

It wasn't a very smart thing to do. Staring into the fire, that is. His vision was already naturally limited by only being able to use one eye, so frying it by staring into bright, cheery flames would serve no purpose other than effectively blinding him. If someone snuck up on him, he wouldn't be able to see them in the darkness. He should be facing away from the fire or sitting up in a tree or any number of things, but he found that he really didn't feel like it right now.

When Naruto had taken him aside earlier that day and said that he'd earned enough trust in his eyes to reveal a secret about him and the Kyuubi, Kakashi hadn't reacted.

Then the teen had spoken. And spoken.

And spoken some more.

The Kyuubi had become Naruto. Naruto had become the Kyuubi. Their salvation and their oppressor had become one and the same. The Fourth's Legacy had become Konoha's Bane.

Naruto had become his sensei's murderer.

The kitsune had understood Kakashi's utter shock and said as much. It was to be expected, he continued to say. So far everyone he'd told had been wonderfully accepting, even Iruka. The mention of the chuunin had snapped the jounin out of his inner thoughts and he'd shrugged it off with one of his cool phrases.

Naruto hadn't bought it in the least.

Of course he hadn't. He wasn't just Naruto anymore. This wasn't a brash, wild fifteen year old he was dealing with anymore. His subordinate (he couldn't be considered the kitsune's teacher from any stretch of the imagination) was also an eon old demonic force that at one time had been hell bent on killing every human in Konoha. A very smart, eon old demonic force.

Naruto had seen the discomfort his revelation had brought upon his former teacher and had graciously backed off, saying that he'd let the jounin come to terms with it on his own.

Kakashi was both grateful and irate at the move. It was thoughtful of Naruto to offer such a gesture, but the copy-nin had a bad history of dealing with things on his own. Still, the kitsune had been right about one thing: Kakashi couldn't talk to him about it. The topic had to end for the time being. That left the jounin with one viable option.


Of course, trying to find a good time to talk to her today had been damn near impossible with their mission and new schedule. Kakashi had managed to get her alone for about fifteen minutes when they'd all split up to grab their gear from their respective homes before meeting up again. The copy-nin had cornered his student and asked if she knew the truth about Naruto and the Kyuubi. When she'd affirmed it, he'd asked her how she was handling it.

She'd surprised him by laughing out loud and saying it didn't bother her much. If any human on the planet was stubborn enough to match and level out a demon's personality, it was Uzumaki "I-Make-Mules-Look-Compromising-By-Comparison" Naruto.

In other words, she wasn't worried about it.

Kakashi wasn't honestly worried either, seeing as how the kitsune had a hundred opportunities to try and kill him throughout the course of the day. And his overall aura wasn't malevolent, except whenever Orochimaru or the Akatsuki came up in conversation. No, it wasn't safety that was bothering him; it was how he should feel about the situation. This was both his friend and the murderer of the Fourth (as well as a third of Konoha's military at the time.) Was it fair that the boy he liked and respected should feel the resentment of the demon?

If Kakashi held this fusion against him, was he any better than the cowardly villagers that had made an innocent child's life hell from the time he could walk?

He didn't know. He wasn't sure how to feel about this. It was easy to accept Naruto when he was just the prison. Now that he'd become the inmate, how was he to react?

Kakashi tossed a small log on the fire and leaned back against the tree he'd set his bedroll under. He quietly stared at the stars between the branches as he tried very hard not to think. He didn't want to think about this situation. He didn't want the memories it brought up. Memories of a blonde haired man with a kind smile. A man who'd become something like a second father to the jounin, especially after his own father committed suicide.

A man he'd failed.

He'd failed to gain his respect as an equal, he'd failed to save him when the Kyuubi attacked, and most of all, he'd failed to die alongside him.

Kakashi tried very hard not to think.

A warm hand on his shoulder nearly made the jounin jump out of his skin. As it was, he was halfway to a kunai before he realized who was leaning over him.

"You alright, Hatake-san?" Naruto quietly asked. Out of the corner of his eye, Kakashi noted that Ino was still sleeping soundly. The fire had burned down into glowing embers.

How long had he been out for?

"I was gone almost three hours. Considering how low the fire is, I'd say you fell asleep just after I left," The kitsune said as he leaned back and move to rekindle the fire.

"…I see," Kakashi slowly responded. He wasn't aware he'd asked that out loud. For that matter, he wasn't aware he'd fallen asleep. He must've been trying not to think a bit too hard. He shook himself awake and got up to move next to the reignited fire. "What did you find out?"

Kakashi only half listened to Naruto's report, instead focusing more on the kitsune's aura and his mannerisms. As an Elite Jounin, the Copy-ninja was always aware of his surroundings, even when he slept. Had it been an enemy nin who'd gotten so close to him, he would have sensed the malevolent intentions with ease.

Naruto hadn't been the slightest bit hostile.

In fact, watching the kitsune making hand gestures and simple drawings in a patch of cleared earth, Kakashi realized that despite the verbal castration he'd been on the receiving end of a few days ago, the half-demon wasn't the least bit angry with him. While he was a far cry from the warm and friendly attitude he used to have, Naruto wasn't displaying any bad feelings towards him either. He was distant and respectful, as though he trusted him as a commander, but not as a friend just yet.

This wasn't the attitude of a mass murdering demon.

Oh, the Kyuubi was there alright. Kakashi could tell just from the larger words, the greater patience, and the sharper mind set that there was definitely a foreign side to Naruto's personality that could only be the demon. But it didn't have control. It seemed a fairly equal mixture of the two minds, though Naruto's seemed more dominant. Likely as not, the Kyuubi side would be dominant during a stressful situation, like combat or when the half-demon was exceptionally pissed off. But whether or not the demon was in power, one thing was certain to the jounin.

It didn't want him dead. In fact, it seemed very much to want him alive and well.

Perhaps it was Naruto reorganizing the fox's priorities. Perhaps the Kyuubi had grown to like Kakashi, for some unknown reason. Or maybe the demon wanted redemption, as laughable as that sounded. But the point is that though this creature was the same one that had murdered his sensei, it was now his ally come hell or high water.

"Hatake-san? Is something wrong?" Naruto asked, curiously looking up from a rough sketch of the village he'd drawn in the dirt. It was subtle, but there was a definite hint of concern in his eyes as he watched his commander.

And somehow, Kakashi didn't worry about it at all anymore.

Dawn saw the sky slowly graying over a spread out farming community. Sleepy wisps of fog hung in the air in the low areas of the village, having not yet been burned away by the sun. The buildings were dark and quiet. Not even their weather beaten, gray planks made a single groan. Normally there would be at least a few people out and about, even if it was just an early rising farmer going out to feed the chickens or something.

Not this village.

It was still as death and though it was peaceful, the wind stunk of it. Something had died recently. Make that a lot of somethings. The very air held an ominous odor of rotting meat. It made the tranquil silence of this small village chilling. At least, that's how it seemed to its observers.

Resting in a tree just on the outskirts of the community were three shadowy figures. They silently watched the village for several minutes, trying to spot their targets.

"From what I saw, the leader and the central bunch of this group have taken up residence in the community hall," Naruto muttered in a low voice as he leaned down from his perch towards his commander.

"What villages are they from?" Kakashi whispered back, his eye never leaving the silent buildings.

"Have no clue for most of them. The leader is a Sound-nin, I know that much. At least four others are Sound as well. I saw two Rain-nins and one Stone-nin. Don't know about the rest. They're ninja, but they're not wearing head bands," The kitsune replied.

"How many?" The jounin asked. His eye twitched slightly as he finally saw a shinobi leave one of the large farmhouses.

"Twenty, give or take two. I'm guessing twenty-one. Five four-man teams and the leader," Naruto answered quietly.

"Ino?" Kakashi asked, his eye tracking the slowly moving ninja as he walked into the center of the community.

"Hang on…" The psychic girl replied. Her eyes glowed teal as she concentrated on the minds spread across the village. After a few seconds, she answered, "Twenty-four living people are in the village. At least 16 are ninja and two are definitely civilian. I can't get a reading on the others. They may be asleep or unconscious."

"I see. So this is going to be a rescue mission as well. That makes it a bit tricky," The Copy-ninja muttered.

The village's layout was pretty simple. The main street was a large dirt road that ran right through the community from east to west. On the north was the community hall and two medium sized buildings that lacked enough unique characteristics to identify their purposes. Beyond that were open crop fields that stretched off into the distance, with occasional clusters of trees and farmhouses breaking up the landscape. On the south side of the road was a large barn that had several crop machines inside. There was also a small trading post that was the closest building to the Leaf-nins' position.

The rotting smell seemed to be coming from the barn.

At the western edge of the community (which was the far side from their hiding spot) was a large, still windmill. It was impressively tall and Kakashi imagined that the farmers took in a great deal of grain to need a mill that large. The mill was probably a thousand feet from them, making this central part of the community about thirteen hundred feet long. Closer towards them, in roughly the center of the village, was a large well. This was the destination of the missing-nin the jounin was tracking.

The man drew up some water and took a long draught from the bucket. He let it drop back in the well with a messy splash, then turned to wander down the road in the direction of the Leaf-nins.

"Well, they didn't poison the water," Ino muttered as she watched the missing-nin slowly approach. He had dark blue hair and the faintest limp in his right leg. He seemed powerful and skilled despite the poorly healed injury. The female genin admitted that he would probably be handsome, were it not for the smug look on his face as his eyes roamed confidently across the subdued village.

"Means they probably used force on the civilians. Filth," Naruto growled in a low tone.

"Well, few missing-nins retain their honor, Naruto. There are some rare and notable exceptions, but most missing-nins leave their villages for breaking some serious laws, like murder or total abuse of power. I doubt there are any pleasant ones on this continent," Kakashi calmly replied. He watched the man on the ground get within two hundred feet of their position. He'd seen enough of the situation. They'd move in now, while the criminals were unprepared.

The jounin turned to Naruto and nodded at the missing-nin.

"Take him out. Quietly."

Naruto didn't answer in words. Instead, he focused his chakra and subtly shifted the flowing energy through the air. He didn't break his eyes away from the man once as he performed his jutsu.

A muffled, near silent pop was the only sound as a kage bunshin appeared behind the shinobi. It instantly reached up and clamped one hand across the nin's mouth and the other on his throat. The ninja choked and tried to make a sound, then struggled in the unyielding grasp. He wasn't able to break free before four arms burst up through the ground and grabbed onto their legs, all with surprisingly little sound. One pair held the missing-nin and the other grabbed its fellow clone.

With barely a rustle, both clone and criminal disappeared into the earth with only a small collapsing depression to mark their passage.

Naruto had a strange glazed look in his eyes, as though he was seeing something no one else could. After a few seconds he announced, "Got him. Broken neck."

"Nice," Ino whispered, slightly awed. Except for the funny mark in the road there wasn't a trace of the nin.

"No kidding," Kakashi replied. He gave a glance at his subordinate and said, "Impressive, Naruto. I can't wait to see what else you've learned."

"Considering there are nineteen left, you'll get your chance," The kitsune quietly replied. He glanced at the community hall and muttered, "They'll notice he's gone pretty soon."

"…We're in over our heads, aren't we?" Ino said as her teammates shifted into high crouching positions, ready to move forward.

"If we take them head on, then yeah, we are. It'll come to that eventually, but we're going to pick off as many as we can using stealth first. Hopefully, between the silent kills and the early hour they'll be off guard and at a disadvantage when they finally realize we're here," Kakashi answered, eyeing the still silent village.

On either side of him, both Naruto and Ino tensed on their respective branches.

"Naruto, check along the southern edge of town. I want to know what that smell is. Take out any nins you find in both buildings, then meet me next to that building closest to the community hall," Kakashi ordered, gesturing to one of the unidentifiable structures on the north side of the street. He glanced to Ino and said, "Ino-chan, go across the roofs of those two buildings on the north side and see if you can pick up anybody in them. If they're a ninja, signal me and I'll take them out. Then I want you to get close to the hall and take an accurate count of everyone inside, shinobi and civilian. Meet back with Naruto and me when you're done.

"Both of you, if you see an opportunity take it. You're both capable, so I'll trust your judgment. And don't trust a hostage. Henge is too common a jutsu for us to risk assumptions. Knock them out or use kai on them, preferably both. As long as they're out of the way of fighting, they should be safe. When we meet up, we'll take the hall by surprise. Kill anything with a forehead protector first, then deal with the others second. You both have that?" Kakashi finished, glancing back and forth between his charges.

At the affirmative nods, he stood up straight and said in a low, commanding voice, "Team 7…go."

Author's Notes:

General: It's out, yippee. Uh, anyways. Not a hell of a lot I need to say for this chapter.

Ah, the council man. He's the guy that tried to get Jiraiya to become the Godaime, immediately after the Sound-Sand invasion. Google search is such a handy tool when looking up minor characters, haha. I also saw on one site that he was the Third's teammate. It should be accurate, but I don't particularly care if it isn't. As for why I threw him in, eh…I liked his glasses.

As for the Kakashi bashing, I was annoyed with what his character did in regards to Lee, Naruto, and Sasuke, but most other fics I've read is either, "Kakashi's so cool and dreamy!" or "He likes Sasuke more than Naruto. Kill!" I think the extreme attitudes are rather silly, so I decided to bash him logically, then move on. I respect Kakashi's character, but I lost a lot over the stunts he pulled in the chuunin exams. He'll act with honor in this story, unlike certain parts of the manga, that I promise.

I noticed some people are in the habit of leaving very short reviews. While I don't mind short reviews at all, some of these are only 1 to 3 words long, which I think is kind of ridiculous. I won't badger anybody about this, but I'd really appreciate it if the reviews at least a couple sentences long. Just a couple lines would be great.

An announcement for the next chapter: I will be disappearing into the wild west for a month starting in the middle of July somewhere. I'll do my damnedest to get chapter 10 up before then, but unfortunately that's a month I'll be out of commission as an author and probably a few weeks on the other side as I write Chap. 11. This will actually be a good opportunity for me to thoroughly reorganize my notes for the full plot of Foxhound and to bounce some ideas off a friend of mine who I'll be meeting up with (when I went out there a year ago, he was the one who introduced me to Naruto.). I won't have access to a computer for the most part, but I will be able to check email and update my lj every now and then. Just to let you guys know that I'm still alive and well, I'm just gone for a little while.

Jutsu: Not much this time around. Next chapter though should have several more.

Tegami Bakudan (Letter Bomb) (C to B Rank) Non-elemental (mostly concussive force) booby trap jutsu used to protect sensitive letters. Nin-jutsu. Five seals.

This is a rather nasty jutsu to be on the receiving end of. It modifies and encases a document that's keyed to a recipient during the seal work. After the document is sealed, only the recipient can open it safely (not even the creator can reopen it.) If anyone other than the receiver tries to open or tamper with the document, it explodes with a force similar to a very small fusion explosion (approximately twenty feet in diameter.) It costs a moderate hunk of chakra to use (by normal standards), but is roughly equal in power to 1.5 (C Rank) or 3.5 (B Rank) exploding tags. Not many people would survive such an explosion at close range (or have the reflexes to get away from it.) Needless to say, confidential information protected by the Tegami Bakudan is Safe (capitol S; bold font) from an enemy. The document is completely destroyed if the jutsu is triggered, no ifs or buts.

This jutsu was dug up from the Kyuubi's memories after the Hyougakage asked Naruto to come up with a way to protect their messages. Maruishi is quite satisfied with the results. The demon's memories weren't clear as to the origin of this jutsu, unfortunately.

(Note: I considered naming this jutsu Post Office Hell.)

Naruto's Tai-jutsu: Will be displayed and explained in the next chapter. (It'll be bad-ass.)

Reviews: I'm gonna keep this brief this time around. In fact, to get a more accurate word count, I'll be going back and removing review responses form previous chapters. I'll leave these up for a couple weeks, then I'll take them down. Not much point in keeping them after a certain amount of time has passed.

Strategemini: Five Cardinal Lords, you got it. Kyuubi is the Eastern Lord, Coyote is the Western Lord, and the others have yet to be named (but I will give a full bio for each when the time comes for them in this story.) And while it's the Northern Lord hidden in the Night, it's not Fenris.

Manatheron: I'm cutting the demon seal use down for now as I'll need to use several of them later and I don't want to burn the plot device out. Besides, normal seals can do some pretty powerful stuff too.

Blackmamuth: Kakashi's hand seals will be explained in the next chapter.

Drahylin: Not long at all. It's Terror Effect, btw.Ino will have a very powerful gen-jutsu later that'll make its victims want to curl up and die. Can't spoil it all though, sorry, haha.

DarkJackel: You've hit a few plot ideas I've been toying with. Hmm, decisions, decisions.

DarkGaara: It took me 30 minutes total to design the house once I sat down and organized it. I drew a simple blueprint on MS Paint to organize it and went from there.

cb urk: That's a possibility.

kurai-kodoku: Well, even Demon Lord's need their 'thrones', right?

SilentOmega: That's with his human and demon chakra added together. I'll do my best not to screw her character up.

PersonaJXT: A fair point. I went back to my scans and noticed that Jiraiya did have three genins. Yondaime was the only one worth mentioning though. His body density is higher than normal, but not Kryptonian or anything. He's tougher than normal, but not to an unnatural level.

dbzneon: Shizune wasn't there because it was tricky enough to write four people. She would have been shoved into the background. I don't really like Kiba that much and I find his character hard to write without bashing him. Since I want to be fair, I've avoided adding him until I've gotten a bit better. The NaruIno will pick up when I feel like it. I warned everyone that I was going to take my time and build up to it, didn't I?

randomreader: You've said the magic word: bad-ass! I love that word.

Vermillion Wolf: That's alright. Episode 3 killed my ninja mood for a week and put me into Jedi mode. I haven't quite gotten out of it yet. NaruIno interaction: granted. Glad you liked this chapter.

Altariel Eldalote: Ino was shocked because she felt that second side of Naruto's mind come into play while he was fighting Kakashi. To her, it feels likes somewhat nailed her head to toe in artic water when she psychically contacts it. Ah sleep deprivation…Go tooo sleeeeeeeep….gooo tooo sleeeeeeeeeep…

Serina L337 Mistress: Sorry, as much as I enjoy people groveling before me, the story comes when it comes. Sometimes I feel like writing; sometimes I don't. Glad you like it so much that you'll stay up late to read it.

KayLue: I haven't made or heard of anyone making fanart for Foxhound yet. One reviewer said they'd make one and I'm curious as to how it will turn out. If I could, I'd make dozens of drawings of the stuff in Foxhound and post them on mediaminer or something, but sadly my talents lie more in authoring as opposed to drawing.

The-Rogue-Otaku: Man, if I had a Wind Cushion of my own I'd never get out of bed. Glad you think I could go professional. I'm going to be working on that this next fall, so hopefully my chapter quality will improve (maybe…perhaps…hopefully.)

Aiel: Thanks for the feedback and the email you sent me. It was fun debating with you.

Thanks to everyone who reviewed. I love to read the feedback!

Preview (ish): Since I've stopped giving release dates, I'll give a bit of info on what to expect in the next chapter:

Fighting and lots of it. This'll be the first example of why I gave this story an R/M rating. Lot's of gore!

Lee joins the team! Exactly why Naruto thinks this is a good thing, Ino and Kakashi don't know!

And Kakashi's hand seals finally explained (five chapters/100,000 words later!)

See that and more (filler) in Chap. 10!