AN: Following the tradition of hobbits, consider this an early birthday present from me to you. :D Or a late Christmas present. Whichever. Edited to add my mysteriously disappearing line breaks.

Two Steps Back


"Let me get this straight," Kakashi said, looking contemplative in the morning sun. He'd turned up (nearly) on time today, to this visible surprise of his blond brat, and had taken a few minutes to quiz his students on their skills. "Despite it decidedly not being part of the academy curriculum, you all know tree-walking and water-walking." There went his plans for a peaceful day of Icha Icha.

"We can also do water-sliding," Sakura volunteered, and Sasuke frowned at her in faint bewilderment. "You know," she gestured vaguely with her hands, "When you go at run, reduce the friction and-" she gestured again, making a slight 'whoosh'ing sound. "Kenshin-sensei used to let us play tag on the river."

"It's awesome," Naruto said definitely, nodding his head vigorously. "You know the little waterfall, off 37? Get some speed up on top of the river and you can do wicked stunts off that. Tenten sometimes uses it for accuracy testin' and-" he whistled, long and low. "Impressive as anything."

"O-kay," Kakashi said, his one visible eyebrow raised. "We'll try that out another time. Right now we're talking about training though." In all honesty, he was getting a little fed-up of hearing about the ever-fantastic Kenshin-sensei, and what he'd taught his little elite group of students. There was some amusement to be taken in the slight jealousy the Uchiha heir was showing though – although he'd had some of the best tutors his clan could spare, they were not, apparently, as inventive as a group of nine pre-genin and a blind man.

"I've taken a look at your academy reports," he said – and hadn't that been a quest and a half getting hold of them; it was like they were trying to hide something about his team. "Given that, I'd like to know what you think is most important for you to learn right now and why." He'd also like to know why Naruto had had more absences than the rest of his class put together, but he'd corner the kid about that later.

He met Naruto's eyes briefly, amused by the faintly suspicious look being directed his way. "Why don't you start?" he said cheerfully, watching as the suspicious look deepened.

"Taijutsu," Naruto said finally, reluctantly. "Or something close range. It's important 'cause our team is kinda unbalanced right now and I guess I'm the best choice to fill the gap." He didn't sound particularly happy about it. He paused. "Taijutsu and speed training," he amended after a moment. "Taijutsu has to change as you grow, but dad says speed stays with you whatever puberty does." He sounded like he was quoting, his voice slipping into an almost sing-song pattern.

Kakashi raised an eyebrow at Sakura, who'd been nodding her head along with Naruto's recital. "Speed training would be helpful," she said thoughtfully. "If I got fast enough, I could use chakra scalpels in a fight, which would be helpful. I also need to build up chakra reserves as well."

Sasuke looked even unhappier at the recital than Naruto had – he'd been wanting to jump straight in to more advanced ninjutsu, but with two of his team-mates coming down on the side of basic training, he was fairly certain he'd look immature if he requested it. It was no real problem, he told himself. When his sharingan activated, he'd have plenty of time to learn ninjutsu – and as his teammates pointed out, speed was always beneficial in a fight. "Speed," he agreed with a nod, and then paused as a thought hit him. "Hand seal speed too. I'm primarily a ninjutsu type, with some interest in genjutsu – having faster seal speed would be useful."

Kakashi nodded thoughtfully, a little disappointed at having received fairly sensible answers. How was he supposed to throw them in the deep end if they didn't start ranting about awesome jutsus that they totally had to learn? It was a little mean of them, he felt. Clearly, he'd have to return the favour.

"Right then," he said clapping his hands, having made up his mind. "We'll do three hours training and then we'll go get our first mission." A flicker of excitement twitched through the genin, and Kakashi repressed a thoroughly nasty grin. If they were very lucky, Tora would have made a bid for freedom by that time.

"So, my beloved spawn, my most cherished minions… have you ever heard of shinobi suicides?"

"Uh," Naruto said hesitantly. "Are they anything like suicide runs?"

Kakashi curved his eye into a smile, pulling out a kunai. "Similar," he said cheerfully. "Very, very similar."

"Daimyo-sama," Shizui acknowledged from where he was crouched by the sakura tree, his face hidden behind one of the more generic ANBU masks, just about recognisable as a cat. The remnants of a chakra-sensing jutsu still sparked from his fingers, courtesy of Kenshin's near encyclopaedic knowledge of everything jutsu related.

"Well?" the Daimyo demanded, trying to sound authoritative in the mild midday sun. He had inherited most of his features from his mother, turning out pale and soft and weak in a way that made most shinobi twitch in disapproval. His fingers were thick and chunky, twisting with nerves – but, Shisui thought, he was still young as civilians reckoned things. Not yet twenty, when most of the daimyo were over twice his age. Given time, he might yet become a passable leader.

"We are able to confirm the presence of the missing-nin Uchiha Itachi," Shisui reported, not letting his thoughts show.

The Daimyo's face twisted. "That's it?" he snapped. "Any one of my men could have confirmed that! The corpse he left behind confirms his presence. It took you seven hours to discover what anyone with eyes could have-" He trailed off, incoherent with rage.

"Apologies, Daimyo-sama," Shisui said, mildly. "There was suspicion that another could have been exploiting his presence. It was necessary to check."

The Daimyo spluttered. "What are you going to do?" he finally demanded. "And why is it taking so long to drag down a single ninja?"

Shisui's squadron exchanged glances, unwilling to confess the truth – that they had no idea where to start hunting Itachi, let alone how to bring him down. "Squadrons are combing the surrounding area as we speak, Daimyo-sama," Shisui began diplomatically, but the Daimyo was having none of it, starting a rant that they had heard all-too often since they had been summoned.

"Combing the area? What use is that? This is a game to him," the Daimyo said, his face slowly turning red. For a second, Shisui compared the shade to the reddening autumn leaves, trying to ignore the increasingly-grating voice. "He taunts us, bypassing the best of our security to kill a servant and leave her body in my bed. Every few months, he picks someone else to kill, someone else to show that we cannot stop him."

"Daimyo-sama," Shisui began, only to be overridden as the Daimyo continued.

"My father is dead to this madman. My mother is dead. My older sister, her husband. The head of my security, my librarian. Anyone he chooses dies, and he laughs at us."

Only strict training kept the ANBU squadron of five from shifting uncomfortably. Shisui opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again.

"I want him dead!" The Daimyo roared, spittle flying from his mouth. "This Uchiha is a disgrace. He makes a mockery of our security, and his clan does nothing to stop him."

"Daimyo-sama," Shisui said, thanking whoever came up with the voice manipulators on ANBU masks that kept him sounding impassive. "I understand the Uchiha have a number of their clan members constantly hunting for the traitor, and they have offered a fairly significant bounty to have his head retrieved."

"Then perhaps they are simply incompetent," the Daimyo said, his voice icy. "In which case, we may want to think carefully about the trade monopolies they have been granted. It does not seem that they are acting in a manner worthy of the wealth afforded them."

Shisui grimaced beneath his mask. "As you will, Daimyo-sama," he said carefully. "If we may speak to someone regarding the positioning of your guards…?" he trailed off expectantly, as the Daimyo drew in deliberate breaths through his nose.

"Okinawa Katsuo has taken over security since his father's death," the mousy little secretary piped up, her body almost hidden behind the Daimyo's bulk. She flinched a little as the Daimyo sent a half-hearted glare her way, composing herself by rifling through a small pad of paper she had brought with her.

"If you have nothing of importance to report, you may leave us," the Daimyo said curtly, turning to leave himself. "If Konoha wishes to maintain its favourable position in our lands, it would do well to deal with this traitor thoroughly. Five years has passed since he showed his true self, and our patience wears thin."

Shisui bowed his head reluctantly, not looking forward to reporting this message to the Hokage – or, for that matter, to the clan.

"Well, shit," C7 muttered softly as the Daimyo's small entourage left the garden, all of them carefully avoiding looking at the naked corpse of the older man hanging motionless from a sakura tree. Shisui sighed through his nose, agreeing with his subordinate.

"Take the body down," he commanded monotonously as he stood. "We'll get nothing more from where it hangs."

"D14?" C5 questioned, wanted to know which medic-nin he should deliver the body to. Shisui hesitated then nodded.

"Dog, Rat, with me. Let's go sort out a protection detail for our beloved Daimyo-sama," he said wearily. The dog-masked C12 and the rat-masked C7 stood silently; padding across the dry grass after him as behind them the rest of the squadron took care of the body.

"Someday I'm going to take great pleasure in telling my children that my first ever mission as areal ninja was weeding," Naruto said lazily, sounding more entertained than anything else as they sat down, eating a late lunch in a training ground near to their first mission. He'd been quite grateful at getting a nice, relaxing D-class following Kakashi's training, 'cause his muscles? Jelly. It was not going to be fun getting up tomorrow morning. He was more fortunate than his team-mates, however, having managed to knit up his own injuries without trouble following a careful application of red chakra. Sakura had had a good attempt at healing herself and Sasuke, but there were still the remains of deep scratches and strained muscles that wouldn't be going away.

Sasuke grunted slightly, looking mostly resigned to the humiliation of low-level chores as he poked at a rice ball with his chopsticks. He'd clearly been warned about them ahead of time, and was looking to keep what dignity he could. Sakura just groaned, stretching out the kinks in her back.

"Or maybe," Naruto said, thinking it over carefully. "Maybe I'll wind 'em up, telling them they'll be rescuing princesses and fighting dragons or something, and then turn up to take photos when their jounin-sensei tells 'em that actually, today's fantastic, utterly awesome mission is to weed the old hag's garden. It'll be hilarious."

"You're already planning children?" Sakura asked, looking faintly bemused, and Naruto shrugged.

"Bloodline propagation act," he told her cheerfully. "If I don't have kids before I'm, like, eighteen, they're using artificial insemi- something to make sure my line continues."

Sakura choked on her mouthful, and both Sasuke and Kakashi fixed startled eyes on him. "Seriously?" Sakura demanded, when she'd regained her breath, and Naruto nodded.

"Totally serious," he said, sounding utterly unbothered. "S'cool though, I still get parental rights over any of the kids and I have official permission to kick the asses of anyone who misuses my DNA. It's like being an official clan of one!" He beamed at them all, and Kakashi tried to regain his spinning thoughts.

"I hadn't heard the Yamanaka had an actual kekkei genkai," he said carefully, and Naruto rolled his eyes.

"They don't. That'd be why I'm a clan of one, Kakashi-sensei," he said, in the tones of one stating the absolute obvious. "It's a new thing."

"What does it do?" Sasuke demanded, sounding faintly outraged that he hadn't heard of it before.

Naruto shrugged. "Can't say. Classified." He smiled sunnily. "It's totally more awesome than your bloodline limit though."

Sasuke sputtered slightly, and Sakura looked like she wanted to thump Naruto for his insults, but wasn't entirely sure whether that would be appropriate. Kakashi checked around for any eavesdroppers, sending out a fast skim of chakra around him.

"Naruto-" he began, only to be interrupted.

"No, seriously, sensei. I can't say. Classified like whoa." He grimaced. "I probably shouldn't have said what I did say, so if you could forget it, it'd be really appreciated."

Sakura seemed to have regained her equilibrium slightly. "Full break down of Shizuka's seven point five seal," she demanded, and Naruto twitched.

"We're teammates," he said, and she folded her arms.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said mildly. "Who was it who demanded half of my black book in return for keeping my secret?"

"Fine, fine," Naruto grumbled. "Equal from this point and teammate guarantee of secrets from now on?"

"Done," Sakura nodded firmly. There was a pause and they both eyed Sasuke, Sakura chewing her lip slightly in worry.

He wouldn't? she signed briefly to Naruto, in the snap fingered movements that 'Kenshin's kids' had designed years ago.

He would, Naruto signed back. Clan stupid.

"I can trust you, right Sasuke?" he said, his eyes wide and beseeching. "I mean, as an Uchiha you must understand the importance of classified information."

Sasuke hesitated, and then nodded with careful weight. "Of course. You are my teammate."

Naruto draped his arms over Sakura. "He'll tell," he breathed in her ear. "But his clan already know the basics, and at least he'll feel guilty about it now."

Sakura elbowed him hard, and he crumpled in on himself.

"Seven point five seal?" Kakashi questioned, sounding interested, and Naruto shrugged from his position flopped on the grass.

"It's this seal array Hiroshi Shizuka invented," Naruto said, his voice darkening slightly over the name.

"You don't sound too fond of her," Sasuke said more than asked. The question was in the slight tilt of his head, which was more than sufficient for his team-mates to understand.

"It varies," Naruto said thoughtfully. "On the one hand, she's pretty much my annoying older sister that doesn't live with the family anymore. Also, she sells us discount seals, and for that I'd probably forgive her if she decided that she was secretly Uchiha Madara on a quest to destroy Konoha through various improbable plot lines."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, and Naruto shrugged.

"On the other hand," he said, "She thinks it's funny to humiliate me in front of everyone I know and she stole my one true love. I kinda hate her for both of those things."

Sasuke faltered slightly, glancing over at Sakura, who grinned wryly. "Naruto has a massive crush on Inuzuka Hana and can't get over the fact that she's a lesbian."

"Oi, oi," Naruto protested. "Like you're any better." He looked at Sasuke, a grin on his face. "She had this massive crush on my dad for ages. It was so awkward."

"I did not!" Sakura shrieked in protest, a kunai suddenly in her hand and being brandished dangerously near Naruto's face. Kakashi managed to steal the remains of Naruto's lunch as the meal degenerated into a brawl from there, Sasuke being dragged into it against his self-preservation.

"Hey," Naruto said, brushing grass out of his hair. "Where's my lunch gone?"

"An enemy ninja ran off with it while you were brawling," Kakashi deadpanned from behind his book. Naruto blinked, derailed from his thoughts and shook his head.


"All nice and recovered from your morning's work?" Kakashi said cheerfully, not bothering to wait for an answer. "Great! Well, we're now going to work on team co-ordination because you all suck at it. So to start off with – trust exercises!"

"Is this where we fall back and trust our partners to catch us?" Sakura said, thoroughly unimpressed.

Kakashi matched her look. "That's a civilian exercise Sakura," he said patronisingly. "Do you see any civilians here?"

Sakura flushed a dull pink, much to Kakashi's satisfaction. About to continue, he stilled at the flicker of chakra that pulsed just inside his range. "One moment," he said, waiting for the messenger to come out now that he'd been recognised.

It was a chuunin Kakashi barely recognised; Tono, Tinbo, something similar. He had bandages wrapped around his eyes, but Kakashi had a niggling suspicion that he wasn't nearly as blind as he was pretending – a Hyuuga perhaps? Naruto straightened from where he sat, as the chuunin sent a short bow in Kakashi's direction.

"Your pardon Hatake-san," he said quietly. "I've been sent to fetch Hideyoshi-kun. His presence is required by superiors."

Kakashi frowned even as Naruto scrambled to his feet. "Isn't my permission required regarding my genin?" he inquired suspiciously, and the chuunin bowed his head again.

"Not in these situations, Hatake-san. We assure you your genin will be ready for duty tomorrow morning. Hideyoshi-kun?"

Naruto held a hand out to the chuunin, shrugging awkwardly at his teammates. "Sorry guys," he apologised. "See you tomorrow, I guess."

They vanished with a fast shunshin, leaving behind a very confused team.

"Okay, what?" Sakura said, vocalising both Sasuke and Kakashi's thoughts. "That was just odd."

Kakashi hummed thoughtfully. "Change of plan, kids," he said. "Run five laps around Konoha, then you're dismissed for the rest of the day." He was going investigating.

"Naruto," Ibiki said, straightening the files on his desk. Naruto sat in front of him, swinging his legs slightly.

"Ibiki," he mimicked, a wide grin on his face.

"Attack. Daimyo again," Ibiki grunted, and Naruto flinched.

"He must be pissed."

"Something like that," Ibiki said. "Have there been any slips recently?" he enquired, keeping his eyes on Naruto's hands warily. Naruto managed to fight down the slight hurt he felt at the lack of trust.

"Well, I had to resist the urge to poke Sasuke in the forehead and call him little brother," Naruto deadpanned. There was a pause, while Ibiki stared at him. "That was a joke," he explained. "It might not have been a particularly funny one, but-"

Ibiki made a note on his clipboard.

Naruto sighed in defeat. "No real slips, no," he said in easy report. "I've not gone deep since last time though, so that might change."

"Oh?" Ibiki asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Well, I'm guessing that that's why you called me here, considering the attack and all," Naruto said, letting out a noise of outrage at the annoyance that slid onto Ibiki's face. "I haven't okay? I know that I don't use it on Intel. officers, you know I don't do it anymore so stop doing that."

"Tonbo," Ibiki said, and Naruto grumbled.

"I was young and foolish," he said defiantly. "I know better now."

They looked at each other, and Ibiki inclined his head slightly. He pulled a syringe out of a draw and laid it on the desk in front of them, and Naruto fought back a shudder.

"Okay, okay," he muttered. "Just – give me a minute." His leaned back, closing his eyes and breathing deeply as Ibiki watched. It didn't take long – less than the minute Naruto had asked for. His shoulders settled into straight-backed discipline and his eyes were narrow and alert when he opened them again.

"Settled?" Ibiki asked, and Naruto gave a crisp affirmative.

Ibiki pulled a clipboard in front of him and nodded slightly. "Presume you are Uchiha Itachi," he said, his voice falling into the low thrum of a genjutsu specialist at work. "You have attacked the Daimyo's place of residence, murdering another person. Why have you done so?"

Naruto hummed slightly. "If I were Uchiha Itachi…" he said thoughtfully. "Well, I've already decided that this whole existence is some massive genjutsu lie, because I'm freakin' insane like that. I'm going after the Daimyo because…" he made a face, and then shrugged. "Maybe throwing the… genjutsu into enough chaos will force its release? Introducing enough variables that the initial caster hasn't accounted for will overload it, allowing for an otherwise weaker opponent to exploit the flaws and escape." As he spoke, he dropped the rougher accent, falling into the crisp tones the Uchiha clan as a whole were so fond of. "I do not try to throw the country into complete anarchy yet, however, because I wish to see the failsafe that may have been installed; it may be too powerful for me to deal with directly. As I test the boundaries of the genjutsu more thoroughly, more powerful guardians will be sent to 'deal' with me. It is important to know the limits of these guardians; if the genjutsu is sustained by my subconscious, which would seem increasingly more likely as time goes on, it is possible that the guardians will also be drawn from my experience. If that is the case, sufficient mental discipline should allow me to overcome the guardians eventually. However, if the guardians show abilities that I am not aware of, it is possible that the genjutsu is externally sustained, which would require more careful consideration."

Ibiki's face looked like it could have been carved out of stone.

"I do not wish to engage with Konoha ninja yet," Naruto said, certain. "I am aware that my previous attempt to do so failed overwhelmingly, indicating-" he frowned, screwing his face up. "Indicating-" A full-body twitch ran through him. "Ibiki-san," Naruto said, his voice carefully calm in a way it never normally was. "I believe it would be wise to put me under now."

Ibiki grimaced, his scars pulling grotesquely at his face, but reached for a syringe already filled with a bright blue liquid. Naruto obediently placed his left arm on the desk without being asked for it, and watched dispassionately as the needle sunk in. He breathed in carefully, once, twice, before his head slumped forward onto his chest and consciousness left. Ibiki watched him for a moment, before pressing a button on his radio. "Please send for Hideyoshi Kenshin," he said crisply. "His son needs to be picked up."

"Genma!" Kakashi said cheerfully as he entered the records room. The special jounin was sprawled out on one of the desks, several files spread out in front of him. "How pleasant to see you again! Shouldn't you be with your minions?"

From the look of wariness spreading across his face, the senbon he was chewing on whirling from side-to-side agitatedly, Genma didn't agree. It was possible he was remembering the last time he'd seen Kakashi; Kakashi vaguely remembered him ending up in a rather compromising position with Anko, in a place that was probably more public than either of the two had preferred. He was fairly sure that he hadn't been responsible for that particular incident, but it was so hard persuading people of the fact.

Particularly when he'd sent round the photos the morning after.

"Kakashi," Genma said unhappily. "What do you want? And no, my minions are with Masaru today. Shouldn't you be with your minions?"

"My minions are fine by themselves," Kakashi said dismissively. "And as for what I want, nothing much. World peace, free porn, Kiku-chan from Icha Icha Violence in my bed… Also, Hideyoshi Naruto's file."

Genma raised an eyebrow, before smirking. "No can do."

"What?" Kakashi said.

"It's classified!" Genma sang happily, before pausing. "Man, I have been waiting so long to say that to you. Ever since you were this twelve-year-old bratty jounin…"

"Funny," Kakashi said dryly. "Now, if we could be serious…?"

Genma sniggered. "What's funny is that you think I'm not being serious."

"Genma," Kakashi said, irritated. "He's on my team. It's a security risk if I don't know my students' full capabilities."

Genma blinked. "You passed them? Seriously? Naruto was given to you because they thought it was pretty certain you were going to fail him."

"They wanted him to fail?" Kakashi asked, intrigued despite himself. "Because of the…?"

"Classified!" Genma sang in the exact same tones as he had before. "That is never going to get old," he said with glee after a moment, watching Kakashi's eyebrow twitch a minute amount.

Kakashi took a few deliberate breaths, reminding himself that killing his own comrades was not conducive to passing the annual psych-review. "If I were to go over past council sessions, as past member-" he began, and Genma shook his head.

"This is outside of council purview," he said bluntly.

"Then Sandaime-sama wanted him to fail?" Kakashi demanded, incredulous.

Genma kept his mouth stubbornly shut. "Genma," Kakashi said, near pleading and the man winced.

"Look, I've already said too much," he muttered reluctantly, after a few seconds. "But…" he chewed on his senbon nervously. "Council session 357, the one just after Uchiha Itachi went missing-nin…" He looked at Kakashi intently. "It won't give you the information exactly, but it'll give you a clue. And I'm only telling you this because you're his jounin-sensei."

Kakashi nodded, and Genma's mouth tightened. "I'm serious Kakashi. If anything you find out goes anywhere, and I'm including your other baby genin in this, I'll silence you myself."

Kakashi stilled – it was far from an idle threat. Genma had earned his position as Special Jounin through his ability with poison, and even Kakashi's nose and paranoia wouldn't keep him safe from someone who had access to all of his food supplies. "I… understand," he said, after a beat, inclining his head, and Genma relaxed slightly.

"So," he said cheerfully after a moment, "Where would I find these mysterious council session records?"

Genma groaned. "I hate you," he said despairingly. "I hate you so much."

Kakashi beamed.

Naruto woke groggily, trying to blink away the headache that always came with the sedative Ibiki used. His stomach churned a little, before settling uncertainly. Dark curtains were drawn against the sun, but Naruto could see glimpses of red and purple creeping beneath them – he must have been out a good few hours for the sun to be setting. He sat up slowly, letting the inevitable blood rush sink against him before he swung his feet off the side of his bed. He was in his boxers, having been stripped of all other clothing and Naruto pulled his face at the thought of having to get dressed. He took an unsteady step, rolled his shoulders and managed to pull on the sweatpants and t-shirt that had been left out for him.

There was the quiet click of the door behind him, and Naruto sighed. "Hey Neji," he said, his normally boisterous voice toned down to a whisper in respect for his head.

"Naruto," Neji murmured quietly, stepping closer. "Kenshin-san wishes to know if you'll be able to stomach food."

Naruto wrinkled his nose at the thought, but nodded. "Should be fine." He rested a hand on Neji's arm that had been extended without question, and shuffled into the main room, flinching slightly against the light.

Kenshin looked up from a low discussion with Inoichi, which Ino had been chipping in to sporadically. Shinko, Ino's mother, was moving around the corner which homed the kitchen, filling the flat with the unusual smell of edible food that wasn't take-out.

"Feeling alright?" Kenshin asked, and Naruto took a moment to grin at his dad, even if Kenshin couldn't see it.

Kenshin's black hair was mussed and overgrown – no doubt Shinko or Ino would nag him into a haircut soon enough, and Naruto would end up cutting it with typical disregard for style. He had a pair of black sunglasses on, courtesy of one of Ino's determined shopping sprees, and had a Konoha headband tied around his left arm. Naruto raised his hand to where his own forehead protector should rest, finding it absent – probably left on the table to the side of his bed.

"Yeah," Naruto said, settling into the seat next to him. "Headache, but that's normal." He looked at Neji. "You eating with us?"

"Shinko-san insisted," Neji said with the barest twitch of a smile and Shinko nodded, smiling fondly at her daughter and her friends.

"Sometimes I think you'd all starve if left to your own devices," she said with amusement, and Naruto grinned.

"Starving's probably better than eating Dad's food – hey, hey, injured here."

Kenshin snorted, ceasing his impromptu headlock. "Ungrateful brat," he grumbled, and Ino giggled.

"How's your jounin-sensei?" she asked, and Naruto feigned shock.

"He was nearly on time today," he said. "I think he's doing it just to mess with me."

Inoichi chuckled softly. "That would be very like Hatake Kakashi."

Kenshin stiffened slightly. "Your jounin-sensei is Hatake Kakashi?" he asked quietly, and Naruto winced.

"And my teammates are Sakura and Uchiha Sasuke, and I know how you feel about him, but the only other choice was failing and I really, really didn't want to do that so-"

Kenshin raised a hand, his face expressionless. "I understand," he said. "You made the right choice."

Naruto let out a relieved sigh, and Shinko frowned as she watched over a pan. "Why didn't you know who his teammates were before, Kenshin?" she asked, curious.

"I wasn't here last night," Kenshin explained. "Some idiot rookie ANBU trapped himself in a self-sustained genjutsu and it took until ten this morning to unravel it."

Inoichi made a sound of commiseration.

"Which other teams passed?" Kenshin asked, and Naruto bit his lip.

"Uh, mine did, obviously. Ino's did – Ino-Shika-Chou, under Asuma. Ayame and Daisuke did, under Shiranui Genma – except they were saying it was this weird double sensei thing, and they've actually got another jounin-sensei, one of the Inuzuka. Apparently they're splitting the duty or something. Ayame sounded a bit irritated about it."

"Hinata-sama's team passed also," Neji said, his voice carefully impassive. Ino rolled her eyes.

"Speaking of Hyuugas, how's the brat?" Naruto asked with a grin, and Neji's mouth twisted.

"You should not refer to Hanabi-sama in such a way, Naruto," he reprimanded, and Ino snorted.

"Didn't stop you from knowing who he meant though, did it?" she grinned, and Neji faltered slightly. "Ah, give it up, Neji-chan," Ino cooed cheerfully, wrapping her arms around his waist. "We know the real you. You can't pull the sombre Hyuuga warrior trick on us."

"He can't pull it on anyone who saw last year's festival photos either," Naruto said cheerfully, and Neji scowled.

"You said you burnt those!" he said. There was a long pause.

"…And you believed me?"

Neji huffed in exasperation, prying Ino's arms away from him and carefully ignoring the amusement of the adults around them.

"How is your team doing, Neji?" Inoichi asked mildly, and Neji met the pupilless blue eyes carefully, thinking over his answer.

"We are well," he said after a moment. "Our lack of a ninjutsu specialist may cause some issues in the future, however. I would try to move into the role myself, but-"

There were nods of acknowledgment at what was remaining unsaid. "Gai-sensei remains a competent teacher, but I fear he concentrates overly much on individual accomplishment," Neji said. "I cannot foresee our team remaining together past chuunin, and I am uncertain that we will be prepared for a position of command when the opportunity arises."

Inoichi hummed thoughtfully, glancing over to Kenshin. "A fair assessment," he acknowledged. "Gai does produce combat-competent ninja, certainly."

"Not all team genin need to be leaders," Kenshin said, and Inoichi's mouth twisted unhappily.

"They are being prepared for jounin eventually," he disagreed. "All should be comfortable in the position of command at the very least – too many jounin-sensei skimp on preparing their genin for this."

"We could continue with the team competitions," Ino piped up hopefully. "Capture the flag and everything. They help prepare us for missions, and we could shuffle around and see if there's anyone who won't take command at all."

"Gai-sensei would be… enthusiastic about the prospect," Neji said after a moment, a tinge of hope in his voice. He'd always been a little envious of the bi-monthly competitions held that he'd never been able to participate in – Kenshin had only introduced them the year before, and Neji had been restrained to team practice at that point.

"Dunno about Kakashi-sensei or Sasuke, but me an' Sakura would definitely be up for it," Naruto said cheerfully. "All it needs is a group of us getting together and finding some time, really." He paused for a moment and wrinkled his nose. "Might not be easy getting free time, I guess. Kakashi-sensei wants to run us into the ground. We're working on speed training at the moment."

"Weights?" Neji asked, openly empathetic, and Naruto winced.

"Not yet. I'm hopin' no one suggests it to him either."

Ino's grin became wicked, and Naruto levelled a glare at her. Shinko clattered a plan deliberately, ignoring Naruto's cringe, and stared at the group sitting in the kitchen with some disapproval. "I believe there has been enough ninja talk for one evening," she said firmly. "Now, Kenshin dear, if you wouldn't mind helping me with the plates…"

The waves broke noisily against the cliff-face, launching a spray of salt-water into the air. The small teenager that sat dangling his legs off the top was drenched to the skin, his red hair plastered against his head. A gourd of sand was set back from the spray of water, resting against a wind-worn tree.

"Gaara-sama," a woman said, half-breathless as she approached him. "I was worried when I couldn't find you." She wore a grey flak jacket, zipped up to her neck, and a hitae-ate was tied around her leg, the symbol obscured slightly by a smear of mud.

"Sayuri," Gaara acknowledged, toneless. He did not take his eyes off the horizon. "There is a storm building."

Sayuri sat down beside him, his head not even reaching her shoulders. "It is," she said respectfully. "Preparations have already been made, so it will not cause undue damage." There was a note of reassurance in her voice; a faint smile touching her lips.

Gaara nodded once, and they sat in silence for a few minutes, watching together.

"If I may," Sayuri began hesitantly, gaining confidence when Gaara did not silence her. "Why do you come here so often?"

He sighed through his nose, staring out at the sea. "He is quieter here," Gaara said finally. "I think he fears the water."

Sayuri watched him with a tilted head, faint incomprehension mixed with utter faith visible on her face. She did not push him further, but the silence begged further explanation.

Gaara blinked slowly, before directing dispassionate eyes up at the woman. "It is comforting to know that there is something even they fear." He pushed himself to his feet. "Come. They will be waiting for us."

Sayuri took her place at his shoulder with a practiced grace, regaining her feet without a sound. "As you wish, Gaara-sama," she said without hesitation, and a small smile flickered across Gaara's face.