Sasuke leaned over, hands on his knees, gasping ofr breath. Twenty fet away, Itachi's Shadow Clone watched him, gaze impassive, breathing regular, eyes bright red. Apparently, all he needed was to activate his Sharingan and Sasuke's assault was useless. For half an hour they'd been here, the younger brother trying desperately to injure him just once. But no matter how many shuriken or kunai he threw, no matter how many fireballs he breathed, and no matter how fiercely he fought hand-to-hand, Itachi was untouchable. Every trick was seen through, every attack halted. Not a single wasted movement was visible. In fact, the Shadow Clone hadn't even attacked, seeming content to wait and defend itself.
"This isn't possible, nii-san," Sasuke spat.
"Then you have already failed," the clone replied. "When you give up on a mission, you forfeit all hope of succeeding."
Sasuke grit his teeth, not wanting to hear the philosophical deflections. He could only hope that Naruto and Hinata were doing better than him.
The water cyclone exploded into steam, the blast of heat forcing Hinata to duck down and cover her head with both arms, pushing out chakra to form a makeshift shield. Thankfully, her thick coat absorbed some of the heat. When she stood up, the fifty-food wide clearing they were fighting in was filled with steam. Her Byakugan was still active, so she could see that Itachi-sensei's Shadow Clone hadn't moved.
"That was my best attack," she said miserably. "Sensei, I don't think this test is passable."
"I suspect it was not, in fact, your best attack," Itachi rebuked her gently. "You no longer have the luxury of only memorizing techniques and using them on demand. Think outside the box, Hinata. That's where the best shinobi live."
It sounded inspiring, but it didn't help Hinata come up with any ideas. All her water techniques had been tried, most of them dodged, a few sliced through with his sword, destroying their delicate integrity, and the last one blown up with a fire attack. She'd started off with her Jyuken, figuring it was perfect for the test since the entire goal of the style was to land a blow, no matter how faint. But sensei's Sharingan was more than equal to the task of overcoming all her taijutsu skills and forcing her to retreat and attack from a distance.
Thinking outside the box was more Naruto-kun's specialty, but she'd helped with his pranks for so long, she should be able to come up with something on her own. What were her options, even the crazy ones?
An origami bull made one last charge before finally collapsing in a cloud of ash as its legs burned up. Before the whole thing could catch on fire, Naruto cast another jutsu, rescuing the unburnt pieces of paper and forming them into several three-foot-long origami snakes. Itachi-sensei's Shadow Clone let the snakes approach, slicing them into pieces with his sword in a mere second.
"Aaagh!" Naruto groaned. He'd tried every combination of origami animals he could think of, only for them all to be felled. He still had plenty of chakra, so it wasn't like he was beaten. But he wasn't getting any closer either. Of course, there was always the Rasengan, but his brief attempt at taijutsu had left him with a broken nose and two dislocated fingers. He wouldn't be able to land a Rasengan on his sensei, and it would only waste a lot of chakra. "Come on, you've gotta have a weakness!" he complained.
"Oh, I do. And it's something you can take advantage of, if you quit limiting your thinking."
Naruto scowled. Being told his thinking was limited was actually rather insulting. He took pride in catching people off guard with his clever schemes. But he'd tried using origami animals to sneak explosive tags closer to Itachi-sensei, only for the tags to be remotely activated by Itachi, killing his animals right away. He'd tried laying traps and luring sensei into them, but Itachi always found a way around the traps. He'd even used the Angel Wings technique, but an aerial assault was no more effective, even combined with a ground assault by origami animals.
There must be something he just wasn't thinking of. But what could it be? Hopefully they all figured out the trick before running out of time.
Hinata pushed her Byakugan to the limit, searching the environment for anything; a location for ambush, a spot to force the Shadow Clone into where it would be weak, even just a bigger water source for more techniques, since most of the pond was lost when he vaporized her water cyclone. She didn't see anything promising. More trees, a couple clearings, a river winding through the small forest, then the wide-open grassy area where Sasuke was fighting-
In a flash of insight, she realized what the test was about. Quickly, she thought back to sensei's instructions at the beginning. Had he ever specifically said...
Her sensei's Shadow Clone looked at her curiously as she began giggling. "Hinata?" he asked warily. "Is something the matter?"
"You- you and Naruto are a lot alike sensei. It's a little funny." She got herself under control, smiling at him. "But thanks to that, I understand the test perfectly." She made a hand sign, causing some of the remaining water puddles to draw together, readying a water technique. The Shadow Clone rested his right hand on the hilt of his sword, prepared for anything.
Then she leapt away, canceling the technique and disappearing into the treeline.
While it wasn't entirely unexpected, the suddenness of the move still caught him by surprise. Once it sunk in, he just smiled and began setting up. She'd be back, and he needed to be ready for that.
Sasuke was attempting another combination of shuriken combos, this time taking two separate tactics Itachi had taught him and mixing them together on the fly, hoping to confuse his brother and score a lucky hit.
Itachi, of course, used the short sword in his right hand and the heavier armor on his left arm to casually deflect the whole storm of metal, weaving through the attack with a graceful ease. He nearly seemed bored.
Then a short whiff of displaced air preceded the Shadow Clone throwing himself aside, turning a desperate lunge into a tumble across the ground, coming up on one knee and looking behind himself. Sasuke only had a moment to be surprised before Hinata emerged from the treeline, unleashing a pair of water bullets.
Neither one reached its target, but Sasuke joined in, throwing caution to the wind, and now there were two enemies attacking from separate directions, pinning down the Shadow Clone and limiting its options. Hinata closed the distance, launching into a Jyuken attack. It was as ineffective as before, but Sasuke threw a pair of shuriken with thin wire connecting them. As his brother's hand rose to deflect a palm strike, the wires wrapped around his wrist, and Sasuke pulled back hard, slicing into the skin.
The first Shadow Clone dispersed in a puff of smoke.
Both of them sat down rather heavily, simultaneously exhausted and elated by their success. "Are you sure this is okay?" Sasuke asked her after a minute.
"Think about it," she said. "He never actually said we can't work together. Just that the Shadow Clones would take us to different locations to fight. And neither of us could win alone, I don't think even Naruto-kun can do it."
"I guess," Sasuke mused, looking up at the sky as he thought. "It is kind of his style. Misdirection."
"Yeah, kind of like Naruto-kun."
"Well, I think we've got less than two hours. We better go find Naruto."
"I think I know the way."
"Hinata, it's where all the smoke is coming from," Sasuke said, pointing to several columns of black smoke rising from a spot on the other side of the forest.
She blushed. "Right. I knew that."
Naruto's own Origami Clones and Earth Clones had failed to pin down Itachi's Shadow Clone, all being felled by wide-area fire attacks and efficient swordplay. No matter how great the number of enemies, it seemed Itachi was equal to the task.
He had a variety of Earth jutsus, his aunt's specialty after Origami techniques, and a collection of Wind Jutsus, his elemental affinity. Uncle Nagato had taught him just a couple techniques of the other three elements, and so far the few Water techniques were useless. Fire and Lightning wouldn't do any better. So what was left? Mass assaults, with both human and animal forms, had failed. No elements were successful, and Itachi-sensei was better at taijutsu and could avoid all of Naruto's thrown weapons. He couldn't Summon anything useful in a fight, and Rasengan wouldn't connect. There was nothing he could do.
Or so it seemed.
"Get ready, sensei," Naruto said, dropping to one knee. "I'm about to pass."
Quirking an eyebrow, Itachi watched skeptically.
Slapping one hand palm-down on the ground, Naruto began a technique. The earth all around them shuddered, then began to move, flowing like water. It flattened out for a moment before sinking, a large bowl shape forming in the meadow, with Naruto and Itachi at the bottom. Itachi sprang up, heading for the edge of the bowl, before his eyes widened in surprise. He flung out a pair of shuriken that struck the edge before he landed, triggering an explosion that knocked him back down into the bowl Naruto had made.
"I see," he said, landing on his feet. "Earth Clones formed at a distance, using the Underground Move technique to remain hidden. Their chakra was cloaked by the Flowing Earth technique, and they set explosive tags all around the perimeter. We can't leave here. Clever."
"I'm not done yet," Naruto said, getting to his feet as a dozen Earth Clones rose up around him. "Let's finish this, sensei."
They attacked in earnest, knowing his chakra was finally nearing its limits. Every Earth Clone had been made denser, landing more powerful blows in hopes of damaging Itachi's Shadow Clone through the armor. But he wove through them intricately, landing his own punishing blows that shattered their stone limbs and took them out of the fight. The remaining eight began launching wind techniques, but a shield of fire blocked them all, and when the fire died, Itachi was gone.
Of course, Naruto thought as Itachi sprang up behind the Earth clones and dispatched three of them with his sword before they could blink, an ANBU assassin would know the Underground Move technique. As the final five Earth Clones attacked Itachi, the original closed in with his technique at the ready.
Itachi had his sword through one Clone's chest and was melting another's face with a fire breath when he disengaged from them both, taking a large step back and bringing his armored left arm up and back. The Rasengan Naruto had been aiming at his head overshot, and Itachi's elbow slammed into Naruto's shoulder, spinning him around and throwing him away from the action. His Rasengan detonated as he lost control, the chakra blasting outward harmlessly.
One quick Fire jutsu put an end to the remaining Earth Clones. "That was not a bad try, Naruto, but it was not enough. You aren't using all of your options yet."
"I know," Naruto said, getting to his feet and wincing as his shoulder popped back into place on its own. "I'm not done."
The Earth Clones he'd created were special. Inside each one was a relatively new Origami creation: the pillbugs. Their outer layers were thickly packed, leaving the insides difficult to reach. Now, at Naruto's silent command, the dozen pillbugs, each the size of his head, rolled out of the cavities in the Earth Clones' chests, surrounding Itachi's Shadow Clone. Their dense shells unraveled, revealing what he'd filled them with.
Hundreds of explosive tags went off simultaneously, engulfing the bottom of the bowl-shaped arena in a tremendous blast. Naruto was thrown against the side, his healing allowing him to recover quickly. Straining his eyes, he looked for Itachi-sensei's Shadow Clone.
Two hands reached out of the wall behind him, grabbing him in a hold that was impossible to wriggle out of, pinning him to the ground. "Again, impressive," Itachi complimented him. "But Shadow Clones can make their own Shadow Clones. I suspected you were setting up another trap. In case you're curious, the other Shadow Clone leapt out, but died to the landmines you set up around this arena. But you still haven't passed."
A noise made him look up, peering through the smoke that still filled their arena. Before he could do anything more, a bullet of condensed water flew out of the smokescreen, nailing Itachi in the chest. The impact threw him off Naruto, and the back of his head struck the wall.
The second Shadow Clone dispersed.
"Took you long enough!" Naruto yelled through the smoke. "Didn't you get my message?"
"We were already on the way," Sasuke said, emerging from the smoke with Hinata. "Your butterfly didn't find us until after your landmines nearly killed us."
"Oh, hehe," he chuckled nervously, rubbing the back of his head. "So you already figured it out?"
Hinata nodded. "Sensei never said we can't do this. And he hasn't interrupted after we defeated two Shadow Clones. I think this is the solution to the test."
"We have just over an hour to beat the last one." Sasuke said.
"We can't go right now, I've gotta recover a little," Naruto said. "I just blew myself up here."
"Yeah, we'd noticed," Sasuke said dryly.
"But we can't wait too long," Hinata said, sitting down next to Naruto. "We had to make a detour in the forest to avoid sensei's traps. The last Shadow Clone is making itself really difficult to reach."
"Maybe we can disable the traps while Naruto recovers," Sasuke suggested. "That way we won't waste time."
"But if the Shadow Clone knows we're coming, I don't think just the two of us can beat it," Hinata said.
"It's better odds than if we wait too long and can't reach it in time."
"I don't think so, we only got the first two by using surprise attacks."
"We already outnumber it three to one, we'll be fine, but only if we reach it in time!"
"Guys!" Naruto snapped.
Both of them started, then turned to look at him. "We'll wait twenty minutes," he said. "That'll give over forty minutes to finish the test."
"Naruto, we need to pass!" Sasuke said. "This is our first real test as ninjas, if we fail now, do you know what people will say? What they'll think of us?"
Naruto made his gaze coolly. "Yes, Sasuke, I do know. I'm not prepared to fail either."
Sasuke looked away, face reddening slightly. "Sorry," he muttered.
"Let's just relax and meditate for a bit," Hinata suggested. "We all need to be at our fullest potential. Sensei knows we're coming this time, and he's been getting ready."
They ducked under one strand of ninja wire, both boys following Hinata closely as she guided them through the net of traps and snares. They'd already been caught twice and lost valuable time because of it. Landing on a tree branch, they waited as she looked around with her Byakugan.
"This way," she said. "There's more snares under that tree to the left, and a pit ahead."
They leaped down, landing lightly on the forest floor. Again, all three paused, making sure they weren't walking into a trap.
"Two steps forward," Hinata said, doing as she said. "Then up and to the right to pass through a group of trip wires."
She sprang perfectly, slipping through the gap as if threading a needle. Naruto nodded a couple times before confidently following her, avoiding the wires and landing next to her on the wide of a tree, both sticking to it perfectly. Sasuke gulped, then activated his Sharingan and took another look. Taking a deep breath, he crouched, gauged the angle again, and leaped.
He almost made it through untouched. But he'd raised his leg too much, to avoid catching one wire, and his toes snagged on another wire instead. A net flew at him out of nowhere, and in midair he was helpless to avoid it, getting thrown against a solid oak tree, the net wrapping firmly around the trunk. The other wires were also tripped by the net's passage, and Sasuke was hit by a cloud of powder and a bucket of paint.
"Itachi has a- achoo!" Sasuke sneezed as the pepper powder went up his nose. "Terrible sense of- achoo! Humor," he growled.
Naruto was biting down on his lip as he moved over to Sasuke's tree and began cutting the net, clearly trying to keep from laughing. Hinata stayed where she was, keeping a lookout for all of them.
"This is taking a while," Naruto said as he made a hole big enough for Sasuke to climb out of. "We're not gonna have time to win a fight."
"Yes, we will!" Sasuke snapped. "I'm gonna kick his ass for this," he said, glaring daggers at the white paint all over his clothes.
"There's not much more," Hinata said. "Follow me."
The boys returned to her tree, then copied her movements carefully, following her around several more traps and finally emerging in the same clearing where she'd first been led by Itachi's Shadow Clone.
"That must have been exhausting," Itachi said, watching them from the other side of the clearing.
"Dying's gonna be exhausting for you," Sasuke growled, readying a handful of shuriken.
"Sasuke-" Naruto started to say.
"Not now!" Sasuke burst forward, flinging his weapons on the go. Itachi's sword was a blur as it deflected the projectiles, then he stepped forward and met his brother in taijutsu, the two of them rapidly exchanging blows for a few seconds. Then Sasuke was sent flying, tumbling across the ground until he fetched up against a tree.
"That was foolish, little brother," Itachi chided him.
"No," Sasuke grunted. "It was strategy."
Itachi barely heard the noise behind him in time to dodge, ducking under a vicious blow and rolling away from the opponent, coming to his feet with his sword at the ready. Naruto scowled, seeing he'd missed his opportunity. "Excellent use of Transformation," Itachi congratulated him. "Turning into a shuriken while using a Clone to pose as the real you, then being thrown so you land behind the enemy. Quite clever."
"There's plenty more where that came from," Naruto said. His Earth Clone charged alongside Hinata, the pair launching into a taijutsu assault as the original Naruto created an origami bear.
Itachi just grinned.
Fire engulfed the bear as Itachi avoided Earth-Clone-Naruto and Hinata long enough for the Clone to pull ahead of his girlfriend, then he rapidly demolished it and focused on Hinata. More shuriken from Sasuke interrupted the taijutsu spar, forcing Itachi to slice through wires with his sword to avoid getting ensnared. Origami snakes tried to tangle up his feet and were subjected to more fire, then Itachi leapt up into the trees as the explosive tags within the snakes were set off by the fire, blasting a small crater in the clearing.
They gave chase at once, the boys following Hinata again, only to be led into an ambush as Itachi set off one trap that dropped a branch right in front of them, nearly knocking out all three at once. Sasuke, enraged, unleashed the most powerful Fire jutsu he knew at his brother, only for the Shadow Clone to slip off into the forest again.
The next encounter was better, as Naruto instantly filled the surrounding trees with origami butterflies. As soon as Itachi escaped, the butterflies detonated. But he'd known that and slipped through the explosions, using a variant of the Hyuuga's Heavenly Rotation to deflect the blast and escape.
The third encounter saw a multitude of wire tricks and Fire jutsus from Sasuke, Water jutsus from Hinata that produced scalding clouds of steam where they collided with Sasuke's jutsus, and a massive origami creation that seemed to be seven or eight bears mashed together, making something too big to be burnt up all at once.
Itachi deftly redirected or cut the wires, countered Fire jutsus with his own and contrived to avoid the steam blasts, then danced around the ungainly multi-bear creation and sliced its many limbs off one at a time, burning up the central body bit by bit at the same time.
Just as Sasuke set up a weave of wires behind Itachi, the origami pillbugs hidden inside the multi-bear opened up and detonated, destroying the monstrosity and throwing Itachi's Shadow Clone back into the wires. A great wave struck him, pressing him down and keeping him from escaping as Naruto and Sasuke closed in with kunai at the ready.
From behind them, an alarm clock went off loudly, the incongruous noise startling all three. They turned around to see the original Itachi holding the alarm clock as it jangled. Switching it off, he observed the three with a critical eye.
"Team Seven, in light of your results in this test, I declare you... successful."
They all blinked.
"Wait, what?" Naruto asked.
"But we failed, sensei," Hinata said.
"Yeah, I didn't get to stab you," Sasuke said, looking back at the Shadow Clone.
"Oh, that wasn't necessary. I had to ensure you would work together as a team, not foolishly attempt to do the impossible on your own. And you did, in fact, work very well together. Besides, that Clone is virtually defeated already."
He gestured at it, and the Clone breathed out a thin stream of fire into the air. Mere seconds later, the third Shadow Clone dispersed in a puff of smoke as it used up all of its chakra.
"As far as your physical abilities, you are all Genin level or higher. Your skills are certainly of the highest caliber we could expect from Academy students. Knowing that you are mature enough to function as a team is the point of this test, and also ensuring that you don't need me to give you direction at all times. You 'broke the rules' in order to accomplish the goal, thinking and acting on your own. That is absolutely vital in this job." He smiled down at them as they all exchanged grins. "Now, you are ready to serve your village as shinobi."
"Somehow, I thought serving my village would make me feel more appreciated," Sasuke grumbled, struggling to control three dogs. In one hand, he carried a bag full of dog poop, his nose wrinkling from the smell.
"Just gotta let them know who's boss," Naruto said, watching as his origami wolf growled at one of the dogs who was trying to run from the group. The retriever whimpered, lowering his head and tail submissively as he trotted back to Naruto's side.
"Fire's not a great way to train dogs," Sasuke pointed out.
"You just have to be nicer to them," Hinata said, petting two dogs behind their ears as one pressed against her legs.
Sasuke futilely tried to pull his three dogs in the right direction.
"We're nearly finished," Itachi said as they rounded the corner to see the mission hall down the street.
"We?" Sasuke repeated, looking pointedly at Itachi's empty hands.
Itachi smiled. "I have my hands full teaching the three of you every day," he said.
Sasuke half-dragged his three dogs the rest of the way, helped occasionally by Naruto's origami wolf. Hinata's followed her happily.
"Well done," Iruka said as they passed off all the dogs back to their owners. "This is Team Seven's eighth D-Rank mission this week."
"Can it be the last?" Naruto asked.
Everyone looked in his direction, surprise evident on their faces. "I thought you were enjoying yourself." Itachi said, nodding at the still-present wolf.
"It's so boring," Naruto moaned. "This is all too easy! I want a challenge!"
"We've been learning lots," Sasuke added, stepping up beside Naruto. "You've been teaching us stealth and taijutsu for almost a month. And we were good before graduating. Surely we can handle something more than chasing cats and walking dogs."
Iruka shook his head. "You're barely out of the Academy," he said. "You need more experience as a team."
Itachi looked past Iruka, to the counter where teams received new missions. "Hokage-sama," he said, raising his voice a little. "I feel the need to point out that my students were close to one another well before their graduation. Do you believe they are unprepared for a more advanced mission?"
The Hokage looked them over carefully, all three Genin meeting his gaze. "It can be difficult to judge prodigies," he finally said. "Where your skills are advanced, your experience is still lacking."
Their eyes fell, hearing that they weren't ready.
"And yet," the Hokage continued, causing all of them to look up eagerly. "Lack of a challenge will slow your progress and growth. And that would be detrimental in the long run." Picking through the mission request scrolls on the counter, he selected one, scribbling on it for a bit longer than normal. "In fact, I believe this mission would suit your team perfectly. Do you agree?"
Itachi walked forward, taking the scroll and looking it over quickly. "Delivery of intel between Konoha and Kumo, as per the recent adjustments to the peace treaty. The team will be-" he paused, eyebrows raising slightly. "Accompanied by a high-ranking delegate from Kumogakure during the travel to Kumo." He looked up at the Hokage. "Where is he?" he asked.
"Yugito-san," the Hokage called out. "I believe we have an appropriate team."
A young, blonde woman stepped through a door at the side of the room. She was tall, with a lithe musculature that was visible through the skintight clothing, along with her quite impressive curves. Her top had black sleeves and a collar, while the main part was pale purple, only a few shades darker than Hinata's eyes. Her pants were less form-fitting, black with a white cloud design along one leg. Bandages were wrapped around both arms, accompanied by fingerless gloves, and a red sash was tied about her hips. Her hair was pulled back tightly into a braid under a Kumogakure headband. The cloud symbol stamped on the headband shined proudly on her forehead. Under it, her dark eyes scrutinized Itachi and his team.
"These children, Hokage-sama?" she asked, her tone just shy of open disrespect. "Even the teacher's not that old."
Itachi placed one hand on Sasuke's shoulder, silently signaling his brother to restrain himself. Hinata gripped Naruto's arm at the same time, holding him back as well. "Age means little to a true shinobi," he said coolly. "I was an ANBU captain at thirteen, and have only improved since. Nor should my students be dismissed so easily. You will find us more than sufficient for whatever you desire."
Yugito smirked, giving him another look up and down, lingering on his eyes, which had changed from grey to red. "I'll have to take what I can get, I suppose." She took the scroll from Itachi, signing her name, then handed it back, along with a pen, so he could do the same.
Once done, Itachi turned to his students. "Pack for a week-long mission, and meet me at the north gate in one hour."
They all nodded eagerly, hurrying away to get ready.
"We got a better mission!" Naruto exclaimed as he raced through the door, leaving Konan blinking in surprise and staring after him. "I've gotta pack!"
Nagato raised an eyebrow, exchanging an amused look with Konan. The two adults waited as Naruto clattered around his room, making a racket while throwing clothes and supplies into a bag. He emerged fifteen minutes after arriving, racing headlong towards the still-open door. Nagato calmly used the Bansho Ten'in technique to pull Naruto back to them, yanking the boy off his feet in the process.
"Where are you going?" he asked calmly.
"On a mission!" Naruto repeated, getting back up.
"Yes, and that means we're going to worry," Konan said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "We want to know where you'll be and how long you'll be gone," she said. "And you're not leaving until you tell us."
Naruto heaved a sigh. "We're delivering information to Kumogakure, it'll be about a week," he said. "There's a kunoichi from Kumo on the trip with us, someone named Yugito."
Nagato's eyes abruptly sharpened and he took a step forward. "Yugito? Yugito Nii?"
Naruto blinked, taken aback by his uncle's sudden interest. "I don't know her last name," he admitted.
"Blonde hair, early twenties, red sash?"
Naruto nodded slowly. "Yeah. How do you know her?"
Nagato smiled wryly, twitching his finger to make the door shut itself as the security seals activated to a higher level than usual, preventing all but maybe a thousandth of a percent of shinobi in the world from eavesdropping. "We've never met. I know of her because, after we settled here to raise you, we sought out any and all information on Jinchuriki. Yugito Nii is the host of the Nibi, the Two-Tailed Cat."
Naruto's eyes went wide. "She's a Jinchuriki?" he gasped excitedly. "Like me?"
"Not like you," Konan said quickly. "You've been raised like a normal shinobi, except for learning more advanced skills for your age. She was put through grueling training since the age of two, and has been a Jonin-level kunoichi since the age of twelve."
"While we aren't sure of the details in her case, Jinchuriki are rarely treated even as well as you are," Nagato said.
Thinking back on all the hateful sneers, the insults, and even some outright threats over the years, Naruto shuddered to think of a worse life than that. "That's terrible."
"Naruto," Konan said, kneeling down to look him in the eye. "You've got a big heart, so you might not want to hear this. But don't pity her."
He opened his mouth, only for her to put a finger over it. "Listen. She's not like you. Jinchuriki have been known to cause terrible rampages and unleash devastation on the world. Even if her life has been unpleasant, it doesn't change how dangerous it's made her. Be careful around her."
Naruto nodded slowly, blue eyes downcast. Konan hugged him tightly. "You'll be fine, just stick close to your team. We'll see you in two weeks."
Nagato ruffled his hair fondly, smiling down at him as the door opened. "Don't forget the Rasengan," he advised.
Looking up at his older brother as they left their house, Sasuke frowned. "Why do you seem upset, nii-san?"
Itachi looked a little surprised for a moment, but then his face smoothed out. "I must be slipping," he said calmly.
"You're my brother, I can tell when something's bothering you."
Itachi gave a tiny smile before admitting, "I don't like Yugito."
"Yeah, she's kinda..." Sasuke trailed off, searching for an appropriate word.
"Stuck-up?" Itachi suggested. "Arrogant? Condescending?"
"I was gonna say irritating," Sasuke said. "And good-looking."
"Don't let that cloud your judgment," Itachi warned him. "I do not entirely trust Kumo, and neither should you. And you should pass the sentiment on to Naruto and Hinata."
Sasuke frowned. "You think they'll betray us?"
"Nine years ago, when we first signed a peace treaty, their emissary was caught breaking into the Hyuuga Compound, by Nagato-san and Konan-san, as it happens. While Kumo claimed he was acting of his own volition, and he was jailed for life, there are many who have their doubts. Just stay on your guard during this mission."
Hinata was the last to arrive at the gate, though she was still five minutes early. Yugito gave her a disapproving frown before heading out the gate. "We shouldn't waste time," she said. "Follow me."
Itachi coughed to get her attention. Looking back, she scowled to see all four of them not having moved an inch. "These scrolls are valuable in and of themselves, and their delivery is vital to the treaty," he said. "It's best to exercise caution, rather than all-out speed. We'll travel in a diamond formation," he stated. "I'll take point. Naruto and Yugito, the powerhouses, will take the left and right sides. Hinata, the rear, use your Byakugan to keep watch. Sasuke, you're in the center, be ready with a secondary assault if we're attacked. Understood?"
His three students nodded, already walking into position. Yugito's scowl was still in place, her arms folded over her impressive chest, but she reluctantly walked over to take position alongside the other four. They took off, leaping through the trees at a good clip, one slightly out of sync with the rest, repeatedly pulling ahead and then slowing down so they could catch up.
This will be a long mission, Itachi thought to himself.
They made good time, reaching the edge of Fire Country territory by nightfall. Although he knew they could press on, Itachi chose to have them rest now and set out early the next morning, so they stopped while still in the forest. With the tension that had built up throughout the day as Yugito either ignored them or replied to any questions or comments with sullen, sharp retorts, his students needed a chance to relax. "Yugito, go gather water," he ordered. "Sasuke, get a small fire going. Naruto, use your Earth techniques to form a covering so the light won't give away our location. Hinata, help me pitch tents."
Yugito headed out at once, not giving them a second glance as she took all the empty canteens. Itachi took out a scroll and began demonstrating for Hinata the method for unsealing items in storage. The boys set about making the fire, quickly getting into a small argument over whether to use some of Naruto's paper to quickly get a flame going. Their light-hearted banner continued as they all worked, Itachi and Hinata chuckling in the background as they set up tents. In half an hour they got all three tents set up, and a small fire contained in a dome of stone, now glowing red and giving off heat without too much light or smoke to give away their location. A couple wind jutsus and well-placed ventilation shafts kept the fire burning merrily, with the addition of some chopped-up logs. To their displeasure, Itachi passed around ration bars for dinner. "We need energy, as much as we can get," he explained before biting a chunk off of his. "Tomorrow we'll spend all day on the move."
He glanced up, then nodded to someone behind his students. They all turned around, starting a bit when they saw Yugito had walked right up behind them without a sound. She was looking at their campsite pensively. "Not much security," she muttered.
"I keyed you into the security seals already," Naruto said. "You didn't see the explosive tags around the clearing?"
She scowled, looking around the campsite again more carefully before giving him an appraising look. "Imagine how strong you'd be if you'd grown up in Kumo," she said, taking a seat around the fire.
Naruto snorted derisively. "I'm fine where I am, thanks."
She leaned back a little, eyes widening at the bite in his voice. "Hey, that was a compliment," she said.
He just eyed her suspiciously. Her gut tightened at the look. It was one she recognized, but hadn't expected to see from foreigners. "I don't need compliments from someone like you."
"Naruto," Itachi said warningly. "All five of us need to work together."
Yugito cocked an eyebrow at him. "That'd be easier if you kept up with me," she commented dryly.
Now his grey eyes met hers evenly. "Why didn't you strive to match our pace? It was your disregard for cooperation that disturbed our formation today."
She scoffed. "I can't be waiting around to hold the kids' hands, ANBU Captain," she said.
"Even when you're paying for our services?" Itachi pointed out.
"Wasn't my idea. I told the Raikage I could handle the mission alone, he insisted on hiring a team."
Itachi nodded as he ate the last bite of his ration bar. "That's because the Raikage is smarter than you," he said, watching unblinkingly as she started at those words. "He doesn't throw his weight around and arrogantly assume he's better than everyone else. Nor does he disregard any form of assistance as not worth his time. And he seeks an alliance for the benefit of his village, to make it strong, because he doesn't think he's already king of the world and too good to be associating with anyone else."
His students watched, openly in awe as Yugito flinched with every point Itachi scored against her, seeming to sink in on herself as he verbally flogged her without even raising his voice. He finished speaking and turned his gaze out, towards the trees, clearly ending the talk and dismissing Yugito. She got to her feet shakily, not meeting anyone's eyes as she slunk off towards the tents, entering one quietly.
"Whoa," Sasuke said softly. "That was cold, nii-san."
"It worked," Itachi replied, just as softly.
It was nearly an hour later when Hinata entered the tent Yugito was in. Naruto and Sasuke were sharing another tent, while Itachi had taken the third, and smallest, for himself. The fire pit had been filled with dirt by Naruto, stifling the fire instantly and keeping it from smoking much as the heat bled out of the stones. Itachi was currently outside, keeping first watch. Hinata entered hesitantly, relaxing slightly as she saw Yugito's form hidden inside her sleeping bag, still except for regular breathing. She slid off her coat before slipping into her own sleeping bag.
The Hyuuga heiress forced herself not to jump as the Jinchuriki's voice rang out. She would have sworn Yugito was asleep.
"Yes?" she asked frostily.
There was silence for a long minute. Hinata guessed that Yugito was trying to find the right words, and was just wondering if she'd given up when Yugito spoke again. "Am I really that bad?"
Hinata propped herself up on one shoulder, looking across the tent at the older woman, meeting her dark, uncertain eyes with a pale, steady gaze. "Yes," Hinata answered bluntly. "We'll work with you because it's our mission, and that's the only reason why."
"But I-" Yugito hesitated. "I always treat people that way. They've never reacted like that."
Hinata thought about it for a moment. The answer wasn't complicated. "Did those people know that you're a Jinchuriki?"
Yugito only looked shocked for a moment, but it was enough. Hinata nodded decisively. "They're afraid of you. That's why they didn't lash out."
"But you know," Yugito pointed out.
"We live in the same village as the Rinnegan's master," Hinata pointed out, knowing this was common knowledge even outside Konoha. "He knows Itachi-sensei, and we've all even learned a thing or two from him. It's hard to be scared by just a Jinchuriki after that."
Yugito seemed to accept that quietly. She stared down at her hands for a long time. Hinata watched for a while, then laid back down, hoping to get to sleep. Just as she was drifting off, Yugito's voice dragged her back to the waking world.
"I've watched other people in the village, normal people," she mused. "I never thought I needed to behave like them."
"Other powerful shinobi are still kind," Hinata mumbled, not looking at her.
"Konoha has a Jinchuriki, don't you?" Yugito leaned forward. "What's she like? Have you ever met her?"
"He," Hinata emphasized. "Is nice, a little loud, but passionate in being a great shinobi. He's someone I admire."
Hinata smiled a little. "Yeah, he's strong. Amazingly strong."
"Can I-" Yugito stopped, as if unsure what to say again.
Hinata sighed, rolling over to face her again. "Look, Yugito," she said, meeting her gaze squarely. She saw the young woman tense up slightly. "If you want to be normal, ask people about themselves, listen, and show that you care. People like feeling wanted, they enjoy it when someone else pays attention to what they're going through, whether it's good or bad, and supports them." Honestly, she couldn't believe Yugito had never learned such basic human psychology in her training. Or maybe it was just that all her training had centered around combat and controlling the Bijuu.
There was silence again as Yugito mulled it over. "Can I- can we-"
Hinata interrupted her. "Do you want someone to practice with?" she asked.
Yugito nodded shyly.
"Let me sleep, first. In the morning, I'll be happy to talk to you."
She rolled back over, smiling a little.
Naruto scooted his sleeping bag uncomfortably close to Sasuke's, whispering in his friend's ear. "Did you hear that?"
Sasuke pulled away. "Yes. Back off."
"Do you wanna give her a second-"
"Get your tongue out of my ear!" Sasuke hissed. His best friend had no respect for other people's personal space. "Yes! Go away!"
Naruto scooted back to his side of the tent, grinning broadly.
Itachi looked up at the stars in contemplation. She sounds sincere. I suppose anyone can use a second chance.