Some rude person poked him hard in a sensitive spot under his arm.

Naruto woke up.

"Nnnaaagh, wha-" He wiped at his eyes with hands that didn't seem to want to obey him and looked around, startled. Everything was upside down, or, more accurately, he was hanging upside down from a metal crossbar.

Directly above, or below, actually, his head, was a small round metal pan, its bottom covered in nasty looking pinkish fluid.

Hinata stood to one side, giving him an unreadable look. She had a small but noticeable blood stain on the front of her jacket, like his blood had leaked through a towel or something. Sasuke stood to the other side, looking impassive. And dressed.

Apparently, he had taken the time to get dressed before he'd came to see his dying friend.

He stared accusingly at Sasuke.

"You said you'd be gentle, since it was my first time…" he complained, sounding betrayed.

"He's fine," Sasuke announced, as if it was in doubt.

"Apparently," Naruto replied, feeling of his still bare chest. It was clean and unmarred by any sort of puncture or scar. "But, uh, why am I upside down?"

"Your lungs were full of blood. The doctors had to drain them so you could breathe," Hinata replied calmly.

"Ah. That explains why my mouth tastes like blood." He shrugged eloquently, then curled up to look at the bar. He had a curious set of padded metal ankle bracelets on, which had a clamp that hooked onto the crossbar.

He stared at it a moment.

"Huh. You know, the last time I woke up hanging upside down and bloody, unpleasant things happened." He glanced at Hinata. Her face was empty of emotion.

Ordinarily, that pretty well described the face she presented to the world, at least since the day in the academy when she'd decided to start taking the ninja life seriously. But even at her most serious, she never looked at him that way.

"I suppose they still might," he said with a weak chuckle. He quickly reached up and, instead of taking the clamps off the crossbar, he unfastened the bracelets from his ankles, allowing himself to turn right side up and gently land back down on his feet.

His shinobi sandals were lying on the hospital bed nearby, and he quickly slipped them on. He looked around for his shirt and jacket. They were nowhere around.

"Just why were you shirtless when I walked in?" Hinata asked in a tone that indicated she didn't actually care, but she had decided to ask a simple question instead of screaming obscenities at him.

"Oh, uh, well, I knew I was going to get stabbed in the chest. I mean, obviously, I was trying to fake my death so Sasuke would get the mangekyo sharingan. I mean, it's supposed to be able to let Sasuke set things on fire with his mind. Totally worth the effort. I just didn't want to get blood on my shirt."

Sasuke snorted. "I figured."

Naruto laughed and rubbed the back of his head ruefully. "I uh, I know we're kinda dancing around the issue, but I am curious." He looked at Sasuke. "Did you get it after I passed out?"

Sasuke just looked at him as if he was the dumbest person on earth.

Naruto winced. "No, huh? Yeah, I thought so. I mean, seriously, your bloodlimit 'magically' leveling up just because you killed a friend?" Naruto's voice was scornful. "Not very likely." Then he shrugged. "Ah, well, had to make sure."

"You mean to tell me that you tried to kill yourself in an attempt to give Sasuke the mangekyo, when you didn't think it was going to work?" For one brief moment, Hinata's voice cracked, betraying her emotions.

Naruto cringed. "Uh, no? I mean, yes? I mean no!" he exclaimed. "I wasn't trying to kill myself for real. I mean, I heal from everything, right? And even if I didn't, well, obviously we were close enough to the hospital…" He trailed off under the terrible gaze from Hinata's empty black eyes. "I knew I wouldn't die," he offered weakly.

Hinata just stared at him.

"…although I'm not sure if you're going to kill me or not."

Hinata just stared.

"…Hinata?" he asked.

She made some sort of half strangled noise deep in her throat, and then he was wrapped in a bone crushing hug, his face buried in her soft cleavage, which might have been nice under normal circumstances, but her jacket was stained with his blood, and the smell of your own blood is always faintly disturbing on a primal level. He awkwardly wrapped his arms around her waist.

They held that pose for a moment, then she pulled back, grabbed a wad of his hair in each hand, and pulled him in for a kiss with bruising force. He gently stroked her hair and kissed her back, and then she pulled back slightly and sank her teeth into his lower lip, her strangely elongated canines meeting with a click.

"MmmmNNNNGGGH!" he complained, unable to jerk back until she released his lip. He hissed and wiped blood from his mouth, staring back at her with wide blue eyes.

Hinata looked fairly demonic with black eyes and blood, his blood, running down her chin. "Don't. You. EVER. Do. That. Again."

"I won't have to!" he hurried to assure her. "I won't ever do something like that again, because I don't have to. The sharingan doesn't work that way!"

She looked at him dubiously. Even Sasuke seemed to perk up and take an interest.

He hastened to explain. "Look, Itachi told him that he had to kill his best friend in order to get the mangekyo sharingan. Now, I was kind of suspicious of that, because Itachi sort of has a history of fucking with Sasuke's head, right? I mean, he kills the family and leaves Sasuke alive. That's pretty mean. Then he makes him watch it over and over in a genjutsu, and that's even worse. And then there's that bullshit about living in fear and hate and whatever to gain the power to defeat him, when obviously the path to power involves allies and armies and shit. He was just making sure Sasuke would keep living in misery, by his own hand, even without Itachi there to mess with him. That's world class dickery right there."

Hinata nodded. Sasuke looked sick.

"So, like I said, I was already kind of suspicious. First he tells Sasuke to avoid people, then he tells him he has to kill his best friend for power? That's just making sure that if Sasuke did manage to make a friend, he'd just end up killing them and freaking out about it. But Sasuke seemed to believe it, and hell, weirder shit has happened, right?" He held his hands out helplessly. "So, I made sure that Sasuke would believe he'd killed me. And he totally believed it, too. Hahah, you should have SEEN the look on his face." Naruto laughed for a moment.

No one else laughed.

"Ahaha, hah, ahhh… Yeah, ah, anyway." Naruto wiped a tear from his eye. "It didn't work. So, obviously, it doesn't work that way. I mean, I'm not saying that Sasuke doesn't have to kill someone to get the mangekyo, but if so, I bet there's some pretty specific circumstances involved. Stone altars, star maps, runes drawn in blood, incantations in prehuman tongues… you know, the whole ritual thing."

They both stared slightly incredulously at him.

Naruto shrugged. "It's like that old story about Key, the Metal Idol. You know, the artificial girl who became human by making 30,000 friends, killing them all on a solstice night, and devouring their souls?"

"I don't think that's how that fairytale went," Sasuke said quietly.

Naruto looked smug. "Yeah, well, in the REVISED version, maybe. I read the original."

"So you're saying that without the details of the sacrifice, just killing a friend is pointless," Hinata said.

"Exactly!" Naruto exclaimed brightly. "And it may even be a complete lie altogether. I mean, it could be the result of training or some other situation we know nothing about. Sasuke needs to do some research rather than relying on the things his brother told him." He turned to Sasuke. "I mean, damn, Sasuke, did you believe EVERYTHING your brother told you?"

Sasuke's eyes darted back and forth, unable to meet Naruto's own, and finally he hung his head.

"I hate Itachi," he muttered weakly.

Naruto grinned. "And, hey, if it had worked, we'd have that much bigger an advantage as a team, and that'd be awesome. The sharingan is already stupid powerful. With both of you using your skills and bloodlimits, and me powering it so you can use them whenever, we'd be almost unstoppable. Not that we're not already, but always keep moving forward, right? And now, we can move forward with absolutely no chance whatsoever that Sasuke will randomly turn and kill me in order to get the mangekyo sharingan!" he said brightly. "Uh, I mean, not that it was ever in doubt. Just removing any temptation."

"Naruto," Hinata announced, "I love you with all my soul…"

"I'm sensing a 'but', here."

"…but that was dumb."

"The single dumbest thing I've ever seen you do," Sasuke agreed.

Naruto looked crestfallen, then brightened slightly.

"The single dumbest thing you've ever seen me do so far!"

Hinata sighed. "Come on, Naruto. Let's go."

"Can we stop by Sasuke's place so I can get my shirt and jacket?"

"If you insist," Sasuke replied, sounding tired and put upon.

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They got to Sasuke's apartment and filed in. Naruto turned immediately for the kitchen, where he'd left his shirt and jacket.

They weren't quite in the place he'd left them. They were actually wadded up on the floor, stiff and nasty with Naruto's own blood.

Naruto stared at them in disbelief. Then he turned and poked his head around the corner, looking at the place he'd bled on the floor. It had been freshly scrubbed, and was still wet and smelled of bleach. He returned to the kitchen and picked up his shirt and jacket, which had obviously been used to scrub at the bloody mess.

He looked at Sasuke incredulously.

"You knew I took them off to…" He couldn't bring himself to finish the statement. To avoid getting them covered in blood.

"I decided to clean up first," Sasuke said innocently. "You know how blood stains whatever it's on if it has time to set and dry. Hinata's jacket will never be the same after this."

Hinata stood impassively. The bloodstain on her jacket was small and easily overlooked, but then, Sasuke wasn't talking about Hinata.

It was then that Naruto noticed that Sasuke was oh so casually standing beside a mop leaned against the wall, the head still inside a bucket of nasty, bloody water.

Sasuke noticed his gaze. "Oh, yeah, well, it turns out your jacket makes a lousy mop. Who'd have guessed?"

Naruto just stared for several long minutes before he was able to form a reply.

"You suck dick, Sasuke."

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Naruto had been whistling cheerfully as he and his team strolled out to the edge of Konoha, on their way to the appointed meeting with Team Ten. The day was young, the sky was pretty, it wasn't too hot yet, they'd all had breakfast, and no one was trying to kill them. They'd also largely forgiven him for the attempted murder of himself, and he'd decided to let his ruined jacket go because, honestly, there was no point in trying to get revenge on Sasuke. Revenge implied creating some sort of situation to annoy, embarrass, or inconvenience Sasuke as punishment for his actions, and Naruto was self aware enough to know that revenge was pointless. At least when all of your ideas for revenge were something you'd do anyway, even if your friend didn't deserve it. He was in a pretty good, relaxed mood, so he felt like whistling.

That was until Hinata brought up the issue of Sakura, and asked if anyone had bothered to check on her.

And then Sasuke had allowed that, yes, he had.

"You went to see her? Seriously?" Naruto asked, surprised. They didn't stop walking.

Sasuke shrugged. "I owed her a date, and I never break my promises, right?" He smirked for a second before adding, "Hn."

Naruto was aware he was gaping at Sasuke. It didn't matter.

"You took her out on a date?!" he exclaimed, his voice getting shrill.

"Hn." The dark haired boy looked bored.

Naruto looked hurt. "You took her out on a date and you didn't tell us? I even asked you what you'd done that day, and you said you'd just been training!"

Sasuke spared him a glance. "I said, 'and stuff.'" He went back to staring disinterestedly down the road.

Naruto blinked. Glanced at Hinata for support. She had her hitai-ate over her eyes, hiding them from the world. With her tenketsu sealed, she no longer used chakra just looking around, but since she still had Naruto's chakra flowing through her coils, her eyes didn't revert to the normal Hyuga look, either. She also found that she could still see through the seals on her hitai-ate, though looking through the sealed metal gave the world a curiously warped perception, like looking through someone else's glasses. They'd judged it worthwhile, since she didn't want to cause unnecessary trouble by freaking out normal people with her empty black eyes.

Sasuke sighed and turned to look directly at him. "It was just a date. It was not the start of a storybook romance. It was not an episode of teen ninja drama. What, did you expect it to be some sort of big long adventure with jealous boyfriends and enemy spies and a comedic running battle and an angry father and an interrupted rooftop blowjob?"

"…!" Naruto started to say, then stopped, one finger in the air and his mouth hanging open.

"Yes, actually," Hinata admitted.

"That would have been awesome as hell, especially if we'd been there to see it and make fun of you," Naruto agreed a second later, having found his voice.

Sasuke snorted in derision. "You know, I think Sakura might have been expecting something like that, too. But no. It was just a meal and a movie."

Naruto seemed taken aback. "Huh."

They kept walking. The stone dog they were supposed to meet at was near, and they could see Shikamaru, Ino, and Chouji near it under the trees.

"…so, was the movie any good?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke shrugged. "So-so."

Naruto shrugged, watching as Chouji stood up straighter at their approach, though Shikamaru remained in a slumped posture that conveyed his utter indifference to the world, and Ino sat with her knees drawn up to her chest on the ground beside him.

"Hey," Naruto said, offering a cheerful wave. He froze.

"What-" Sasuke began.

"Shintenshin," Ino whispered, projecting her hands in front of her, aiming at Hinata.

Hinata twitched, trying to throw herself to the side to avoid the unknown attack, but she couldn't move. She grew still as Ino slumped forward onto her knees.

Neither of them could turn their head, but they could follow the soft sounds of his movement, which he clearly made no effort to hide, as Chouji calmly walked around behind them, his face set in a serious expression.

"Kagemane no jutsu, success," Shikamaru said in a bored tone of voice.

"You could sound a little more enthusiastic," Naruto chided, his eyes darting back and forth. Only his eyes and his mouth seemed under his control. Even his breathing had changed, apparently mirroring Shikamaru's own slow, steady pace, though he could change it to talk with a little thought and effort.

Shikamaru ignored him, instead turning slightly to look at Hinata, the tiny movements mirrored in all three of his captives.

"Ino?" he asked.

"I'm here," Hinata answered, the inflections of her voice strangely altered. She visibly shuddered, her muscles twitching and spasming within the limits of her shadow bind. "Hinata's vision is really weird."

She made a small, subtle movement, a certain quirk of the lips, and Shikamaru released her from his shadow. She stumbled slightly as she moved a few steps away from Naruto and Sasuke, but her movements quickly grew smooth and confident as she found the natural movements Hinata's body had been trained in, which was different for everyone.

"She's got a lot of chakra," Ino muttered quietly, shifting her hips uncomfortably. "What the…" She stopped and slid her hand down the waistband of Hinata's pants in the back, then her mouth quirked again. "Hinata, you ero-girl."

Shikamaru coughed slightly, blushed faintly, and tried to ignore Ino's antics, causing Naruto and Sasuke to mimic his movements, though they kept trying to turn their head to look at Ino/Hinata.

"They're being very calm about this," Chouji noted from behind the two boys.

Naruto grinned, showing a lot of teeth. A lot of very white, very sharp, very pointed teeth. Sasuke's sharingan spun quickly, not missing a movement.

"Because actions matter, not words," Ino explained seriously, raising Hinata's hitai-ate to look at them more directly, putting aside the matter of the unusual vision for the moment. Part of her ability was adapting to the new body, no matter how different. She pulled a kunai out of Hinata's equipment pouch and gestured with it. "Hinata is unharmed for now, I've just taken over her body. But I can kill her, or you, at any moment, and there's nothing you can do to stop me. And even if you could stop me, Chouji is behind you, and you can't stop Chouji."

"Well, it's like this," Shikamaru said, sounding almost resigned. "We just wanted to introduce ourselves properly."

"Hi, Shikamaru-kun," Naruto said in a tone that would have been friendly if not for the faint growling edge to it.

Sasuke said nothing.

Shikamaru was silent for a moment, waiting for Ino to speak, since these sort of social things were her job, anyway. But she had gone quiet, and Hinata's weird black eyes seemed to stare aimlessly into space.

He sighed. Troublesome girl.

"So, yeah, I'm sure that if we attack you or whatever, you'll kill us all or whatever your pride makes you do. I don't really care about that, but we're not here to cause trouble. More importantly, we know who you are. We know what happened with the last team you worked with, and all we really wanted to say was that we won't be pushed aside like that."

Naruto's feral expression faded, replaced by a more neutral, considerate one. "You heard about the others?"

Shikamaru gave him a disgusted look. "As troublesome as it was, it's more troublesome to walk into a situation with no information."

"That's… completely true," Naruto admitted, rebuffed.

"So we just wanted to let you know that, you might be stronger or more skilled, but if you mess with us, we will hurt you." Shikamaru's lips twisted, as if even having to say the words was distasteful.

Naruto raised one eyebrow. Sasuke looked like he was preparing to murder Shikamaru.

"If our interests do not overlap, there is no need for conflict," Chouji rumbled from behind them.

"Exactly," Shikamaru said, glancing between them at his friend. "Now, are we going to have any problems?"

Naruto gave the lanky, dark haired boy a measuring look, then his face split into a wide grin. "Nah, we're good."

Shikamaru seemed relieved.

Naruto laughed. And laughed some more, whooping his amusement to the world. Even Sasuke seemed somewhat taken aback by Naruto's laughter, which he felt was somewhat at odds with their situation.

Shikamaru frowned at Naruto, well aware that the blond could easily be lying about their good behavior, but unable to think of anything to do about it.

"Shikamaru?" Ino said suddenly, her voice small and quavering. "Can I get out of Hinata's head now? It's cold, and there are wolves after me."

"…wolves?" Shikamaru asked incredulously.

Ino whimpered. "It's dark in here," she said, as if that explained everything.

"One moment, Ino," Shikamaru said, then turned back to Naruto and Sasuke. "So long as we understand each other?"

Naruto chuckled again. "Yeah, it'll be fine. You're trying to protect your team. We respect that. I don't think we'll have any issues, to be honest."

Shikamaru just gave him a look. "I don't think you've ever been honest in your life."

Naruto laughed again, clearly pleased. "Ah, you got me. Yep, we're all just a bunch of liars. Just call us Team Lie." He winked. "But we'll be good."

"Alright, release Hinata," Shikamaru said.

Ino quickly formed a seal, releasing the technique, then Hinata collapsed and Ino's body sat up straight, as if poked by a needle. She shuddered and quivered as she jumped up, running her hands over her body like she was brushing off spiders.

"Ugh! What the HELL is wrong with that girl?!" she all but shrieked.

Hinata calmly climbed to her feet and stood there expectantly.

"You could have caught her," Naruto said reproachfully. "That was rude."

"I'm very sorry," Chouji said from behind them. "I would have liked to, but please excuse me for being cautious around a juken user."

"Well?" Hinata said expectantly.

Shikamaru shrugged, then released Naruto and Sasuke from his shadow hold.

Now free to look around at will, they could see the faint shadow within a shadow of Shikamaru's technique twisting along the ground, blending in with the shadows from the trees overhanging the site.

Seeing their look, he cocked his head slightly. "If there's light, there's always shadow."

Chouji rejoined his side, so they presented a unified front against Team Lie.

Naruto looked impressed, glancing at Hinata to make sure she was okay. She brushed his arm with her hand to tell him she was fine.

"No, really, what the hell is wrong with you?" Ino demanded, pointing a shaking finger at Hinata. "It was fine at first, but there's something in your head!"

Hinata cocked her head at Ino in puzzlement. "That was me," she said simply.

Ino shuddered.

"So do we kill them now or wait till later?" Sasuke asked, sounding almost as disinterested as Shikamaru. He understood Naruto's point, but he also wanted to verbally prod Team Ten to see how they would react.

All three members of Team Ten dropped into a fighting stance.

"No, no, it's okay, Sasuke," Naruto said consolingly, putting a hand on Sasuke's shoulder. "They're just protecting each other from us. You can't blame them for that." He gave them all a feral, predatory grin and a wink.

"In other words, our power and corresponding reputation have grown to the point that those who were once our peers feel the need to threaten us, knowing they cannot defeat us, just so that we will notice them before we crush them underfoot. That is why Naruto is pleased, not angry at the unprovoked attack." Hinata smiled softly, directing her words at the other team. "It is rather amusing."

"Spoken as if from Kakashi himself," a new voice interrupted, and all of them turned in surprise to see a heavyset, bearded man in a green jounin's vest leaning against a tree nearby, smoking a cigarette.

Naruto's nostrils flared, but he still couldn't smell anything but the clean scent from the land around them.

Asuma took a drag as if to say, 'Jounin, kid.'

"Well, anyway," their new sensei said. "I hope you've learned your lessons from Gai. Not everyone is like Kakashi, and we all have our lessons to teach. Assumptions can bite you, hard. I think you'll find that I'm a bit different from anything you're used to. In fact, it wouldn't be too much to say that I'm the exact opposite of Kakashi."

They stared at him silently, eyes not missing a movement.

Asuma shrugged. "Maa maa, it won't be a problem. Come on, kids. Let's go grab a mission."

Left unspoken but clearly understood, at least to Naruto's team, were the words, 'I won't let it be a problem.'

They trailed along docilely, in two ranks of three, the teams clearly remaining apart. Naruto, Sasuke, and Hinata all studied their new sensei with all of their skills and abilities, each wondering what kind of ninja their new teacher was.

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Their mission for the day turned out to be a D rank assignment to clean up a training ground, which lead to Team Lie's first question of their new sensei.

"What idiot doesn't hide the evidence of their jutsu knowledge?" Naruto asked incredulously, staring at the pillars of rock from doton jutsu and the charred remains of target logs.

Asuma chuckled quietly. "There's always someone who either doesn't think or doesn't care."

"Sensei?" Ino asked. "Do you want us to tell you about the battle fought here?"

Asuma shrugged as if it didn't really matter.

"Can you read the signs?" he asked her, referring to the timeline of the sparring match and the way it had raged across the clearing.

Ino hesitated, then nodded.

"Can you?" he asked archly, turning to his three new charges.

If anyone else had asked them that, Naruto probably would have responded with a snarky bit of rudeness, because of course they could. But something about the way Asuma inflected the words made it seem as if he were mocking them, or maybe himself, or hell, maybe Kakashi. Naruto didn't know him well enough to decide, so he settled for a guarded nod.

Asuma shrugged again. "Well then, no point teaching you what you can already do." He walked away.

Blue, red, and black eyes followed him, unblinking.

"I think he's lying to us," Naruto said quietly, staring as their newest teacher began hand rolling a cigarette with the greatest of care.

His two friends glanced at him.

"I think he's exactly like Kakashi-sensei, and he's lying to us."

At the edge of the clearing, Asuma licked the paper and finished the roll, aware of and yet supremely unconcerned by the three sets of beady little genin eyes following his every movement.

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Shikamaru was well aware of Naruto's love of kage bunshin, since Ino had managed to coax that little tidbit of info out of Tenten through the use of arcane feminine powers. So he was completely expecting the blond boy to swarm the clearing with clones, just to make a point about how much more powerful he was than Team Ten.

He was right on the money as far as Naruto's use of clones went, but he was somewhat more surprised, and disturbed, when instead of making them on the spot, Naruto called them out of the bushes.

Hinata caught his look and touched Naruto's arm. Naruto turned to grin at Shikamaru.

So he relies on the dojutsu of the other two. He considered all he knew about the legendary information gathering abilities of the village's two strongest bloodlimit abilities, and summed up his feelings in one word.

Troublesome.

"Doesn't everyone keep a few dozen reinforcements hiding just out of sight at all times?" Naruto asked innocently. "You know, just in case something surprising happens and things get… dicey." He closed his mouth with an audible snap of teeth.

Shikamaru shrugged, doing his best imitation of his sensei. "Of course," he agreed. "I had Chouji."

Sasuke glanced at the bigger boy, was standing nearby, studying a spear of earth rising from the ground, his expression clearly dubious.

It didn't change when Chouji leveled the projection of dirt with one well placed palm strike, then looked back at them with an expression of, 'See?'

In response, two dozen Naruto clones attacked the site of another doton jutsu, leveling the ground in moments with their combined efforts.

The two teams stared each other down, Naruto grinning, Shikamaru looking bored.

All of their attentions were drawn as a butterfly flew erratically between the two groups, buffeted by tiny breezes as it followed its own unpredictable nature.

Suddenly, they were aware that Asuma was there, peering over Ino's shoulder at the pretty, yellow butterfly.

"Sometimes," Asuma said quietly, "it's not the number of changes you make, it's the nature. The tiny winds from a butterfly's wings can have huge consequences, like altering the weather just enough to cause a typhoon to grow out of a gentle breeze thousands of miles away. Instead of a nice day, you get a huge storm that destroys houses and kills untold numbers." He rubbed his beard. "Aaa, that's what they say, anyway." He wandered away, no longer interested, and sat beneath a tree beside a stack of fresh target logs that Naruto was sure hadn't been there several minutes earlier. He wondered if Hinata or Sasuke had caught it when Asuma brought them in.

Everyone blinked.

Chouji nodded sagely at the innocent butterfly. "Don't underestimate butterflies. They're more powerful than they look."

Naruto stared at Asuma, then Chouji, then finally his blue eyes tracked the butterfly as it fluttered about.

Everyone on Team Ten flinched as Naruto suddenly sprang forward, bringing his hand down on the butterfly and driving it to the earth in a tangle of broken, limply wiggling wings.

His sandaled foot came down on it a second later, grinding it to death.

"Hah!" Naruto cried triumphantly. "I just saved thousands! Take that, butterfly!"

Sasuke nodded sagely. "Wisdom," was all he said.

"…!" Chouji responded in mute horror.

There was a tiny, but progressively growing sound, and everyone turned to see Hinata pulling a single finger back from the largest single object in the clearing, a spiked column of solid rock that had erupted from the ground in response to some ninja's technique.

Flakes fell off the rock, at first singly, then two, three, even dozens at a time, until the thousand odd pounds of rock had splintered into shards like coarse sand, which settled under its own weight.

"Little changes?" Hinata asked, her black eyes looking alien and out of place in her pale, sweet face. "We can make those."

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For an hour or so, there was little chatter between the two teams, nothing but the barest of grunts of acknowledgement or requests to move your person so I can fill in that hole before I stick you in it and save us all some effort.

Team Ten was wary, seeming to expect an attack from out of nowhere.

And given their less than completely open reception that morning, Team Lie was on full alert, like it was landscaping duty behind enemy lines. Hinata never sealed her tenketsu, and Sasuke's sharingan never stopped spinning.

Asuma felt the tension between the two teams build, and he stared up into the canopy of leaves over his head like a neophyte staring at a candle flame.

Huh. Two hundred and thirty four leaves on one branch. And nine leaves, just nine, on one slender twig.

Asuma smiled and turned his attention to Naruto.

Like the teacher, the student will prod for weakness where he thinks it most likely to hide.

"So, I've been wondering," Naruto began conversationally, enough, dispelling most of his clones except some still pounding dirt around fresh training logs. "What use, exactly, is a fat ninja?"

The tension in the clearing spiked. Shikamaru straightened as if a rod had been inserted into his spine. Ino pulled an elastic band out of a pouch and quickly scrunched her ponytail into a compact bun.

Chouji rose to his feet from his kneeling position and dusted his hands together, his meaty palms coming together with hard, sharp cracks.

Asuma's smile grew wider and he leaned his head back, closing his eyes in contentment.

No weakness in that butterfly.

Naruto, sensing that he had crossed an invisible line, revised his statement.

"Now, I'm not calling you fat, I'm just saying. As ninja, we're supposed to be stealthy, right? Quick, unseen, undetected." He waved his hand vaguely. "Isn't that harder when you're larger than average?"

Hinata's gaze never wavered from Chouji. Sasuke raised one eyebrow, curious if the boy would fly into a rage.

Chouji walked up to Naruto.

Looked at him.

Naruto stared back, not intimidated in the least.

Chouji didn't say a word, he simply produced a small bag of chips, apparently from nowhere, a common ninja trick, though usually used with kunai, not snack foods.

Naruto waited for the other shoe to drop as he watched Chouji open the bag and eat the chips one by one, slowly and methodically.

Then it hit him: Chouji wasn't making a sound. Not one single sound, either his breathing, the crunching as the chips broke in his mouth, or even the crinkle from the bag itself. Chouji was eating the loudest snack food in existence while remaining completely and utterly silent.

Chouji finished the bag, tapped the last few crumbs into his mouth, then wadded, actually wadded, the bag up and stuffed it in a pocket.

Then, he pulled out another, and tossed it to Naruto.

It crinkled loudly as it hit Naruto's palm, the chips adding to the noise as they rustled inside.

Naruto pursed his lips, feeling the challenge. There had to be a trick to it, something to do with the way the bag was held, or something. He channeled chakra to his fingertips, carefully tugging at the two sides of the bag as he tried to get it open. Hinata or Sasuke had probably figured it out at first glance, but he didn't have those abilities, and he knew it'd be seen as a forfeit if he asked now.

The heat glued bag didn't give up its contents easily, the plasticized paper tearing with an audible rip as he tried to ease it open. He tried to do it slowly, but it just made the tearing noise last longer. Wincing, he finally just gave it a sharp pull and finished opening it, the sound seeming to echo across the silent clearing. Ah, well. He reached inside.

There wasn't anything in there.

Surprised, Naruto stared into the bag. There had been chips in there. He had FELT the chips in there, the weight, everything.

Astonished, he glanced up at Chouji, who stood silently in front of him.

Chouji was chewing silently, a satisfied expression on his face.

"Don't be rude," he said, like a pronouncement, and turned back to his duties.

Ino was torn between cheering for her teammate, and biting her nails in anxiety, wondering if they hadn't just escalated the rivalry between the teams.

But Naruto… was smiling?

No, he was grinning like a fool.

Naruto bowed deeply to Chouji, meaning every movement in it.

"Ah, my apologies, then," he said, still smiling. "I withdraw any aspersions I might have cast on your abilities as a ninja."

Chouji paused. Looked at him. Nodded once, a bob of his head.

"It's fine," he said in a friendly tone of voice, as if he was talking to Shikamaru. Chouji wasn't one for grudges.

And just like that, the tension between the two teams was broken.

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