Chapter 21 – Mettle of a Mouse

A/N: I know it's been a while but there's a reason for that (basically, I need to work or I starve to death) and an important notice at the end of this chapter; until then enjoy the latest offering of this little fiction of mine.

XXX

In the time he'd been around, which as his daughter saw fit to remind him more and more these days was a fair few more than he'd have liked to admit, Teuchi had seen the vast majority of the comings and goings of the village that civilians such as himself were privy to. Because of such knowledge and experience he was able to set both his internal calendar and the menu of his ramen stand as much to the current social climate as the physical one. It was for this reason that he always started selling dishes with higher contents of filling meat, essential for a growing body, as the first signs of autumn blossomed in the air and children of a certain age, either through their own devices or on the prompting of their parents, threw themselves into their training as whispers of the forthcoming Academy selection exam were birthed in the evening breezes.

It was a good time to be a vendor as those coming off the training areas civilians were allowed access to were often so hungry as to be less picky than normal about where they ate, but now, on the eve of the actual exam itself there was a very definite undercurrent of nervous anticipation in the air as speculation regarding the forthcoming testing and the rumours were at fever pitch. As he laboured at his cooking stove, the older Ichiraku reasoned to himself that most children who were striving to become students in the way of the shinobi were right now throwing themselves into last-minute training, reading up on obscure, last-minute topics that were probably as likely to crop up in the written portion of the exam as he was of being named head of the merchants' guild or trying in vain to catch an early night to be well-rested for the labours of the morning,

"Evening Ayame-chan; three bowls of your finest, one of each meat".

And, not for the first time, Ichiraku Teuchi found himself holding in a slight snicker as he was once more confronted with the knowledge that, whatever his favourite customer might have been, 'most children' was most definitely not one of them.

He was still chuckling slightly when his daughters' face appeared at the doorway into the rear of the store, though before Ayame could speak he heaved the small pot onto the closest side and began to ladle the thick noodles into a series of old but still perfectly serviceable and clean bowls, speaking even as she drew in the breath for words,

"I heard him Aya-chan", he assured his daughter, though he didn't stop her swiping the filled bowls away to feed the no-doubt ravenous mouse currently waiting behind their counter, "I'll be out in a second, I doubt we'll see many more customers tonight what with the nerves flowing around the place". Ayame nodded, skilfully hefting a filled vessel in each hand as her father pinched out the small fire that allowed the water in his cooking urn to boil by dropping the small metal lid back atop the sunken fire pit and then followed her into the front of his bar, a smile creasing his well-worn face as he saw the familiar shock of blonde hair poking over the top of the equally shocking collar of a bright orange jumpsuit,

"Hello there Naru-kun", Teuchi greeted, the last Uzumaki shifting his gaze reluctantly from the virtual hypnosis of the steaming bowl Ayame laid on the counter before him to glance at the older man as he finished, "nervous about tomorrow?"

It was almost flawless but, for those who had known Naruto for almost as long as he'd been alive, there was still the slightest flicker of self-doubt present in his expression before, as always happened, he gave a wide grin that somehow swallowed any trepidation, nerves or fear he may have been feeling and buried it down so deep within himself it was impossible to tell it had ever existed as he began animatedly answering the question posed to him,

"Nah, well, not really", he admitted, though such doubt didn't seem to affect his apparently unshakable inner resolve as he shrugged, "I've had enough training so far and from what Ten-chan and the others I've spoken who've gone through the exam have said I've been working on all the right things, so the only thing that's really got me unsure is the written exam", a memory of years ago drifted across the front of Teuchi's mind, the disembodied voice of the leader of his village echoing in his ears as he beheld the boy before him; you said it was likely Naruto-kun will never be an ideal student – not for the first time I believe you were correct Hokage-sama; "though from what I've heard it's not really something you can really prepare for, more about creative thinking, like seeing a way out of a problem than having to know something, so that shouldn't be too bad". Seeing her little brother figure brightening up Ayame smiled engagingly as she reached over and took his first empty bowl away, Naruto having somehow evolved a supernatural ability to simultaneously eat ramen and carry on talking without so much as a hitch in his conversation,

"Feeling confident then Naru-kun?"

"Yep, I should be okay; no-one better than me at thinking outside the box as the clan leaders would say. Besides", the jinchuuriki's smirk suddenly widened in a way that sent a strange shiver of foreboding up and down his pseudo-sister's spine, "I got a little trick-card up my sleeve just in case anyway". Ayame raised an eyebrow,

"I see – can you tell us what this card of yours is or would you have to kill us if you told us?" Naruto chuckled,

"You know I couldn't raise a hand to you or jiji Ayame-chan", he admitted before smirking craftily and tapping his chopsticks to the side of his nose, "but a ninja needs his secrets either way, and what you don't know can't get you in trouble".

"I would hope it also couldn't get you in trouble either Naruto", Teuchi interjected firmly but not unkindly, placing down the Uzumaki's last bowl as he did so, "little as I know about the ins and outs of shinobi life and education I'd be willing to bet that the examiners you'll be up against tomorrow would have a very dim opinion of any tomfoolery you might get up to during your tests". To the ramen chefs' not so great surprise, however, Naruto merely raised an eyebrow and ploughed on with his relentless ramen consumption,

"As jiji would say a plan's only foolish if it doesn't work", the boy pointed out in a sage tone, elaborating as he went on, "I'm still not sure exactly what these tests are likely to involve; they change every year for a reason; so I and everyone else am going to need every advantage we can get our hands on. I know the clan kids like Kiba and the others have been drilled by their parents, especially Shika…"

He broke off for a moment, remembering the expression of betrayed horror and fury that had crossed the Nara scion's face when, as the two of them were up to their elbows in old straw and manure following the latest of their riding lessons finishing and the inevitable clear-up starting, his mother had casually mentioned that his training for the then-three month distant exams was starting in the morning. Shikamaru had inevitably dismissed the whole thing as troublesome until Yoshino, a devious gleam in her eye as she moved to quash such rebellious motions with the ruthlessness typical of a Nara lady, merely diverted her attention from her son to the hired help and began casually bartering for a reasonable price to hire his services as a musician, an implied threat that had Shikamaru rapidly going pale and changing his tune post-haste. Fortunately for the Nara's pride and his own health as contrary to appearances Shika was a surprisingly terrible enemy when actually roused enough to return an insult due to his inherent intelligence allowing him to plan so far into the future, Naruto was able to hold in his laughter until he was out of the sight of Nara stables and the itching sensation on the back of his neck, a result of his friend's burning gaze promising to flay him to within an inch of his life should he even start to offer either his services or his bagpipes to Yoshino's cause, faded; though that didn't stop me getting a good laugh out of it when I got home. Poor Shika, hopefully the crazy-deer-lady didn't thrash him around too much…, huh, oh;

"..Naruto!" Finally homing back in on the present the jinchuuriki was able to just about catch his name and, seeing Ayame's somewhat concerned expression, duck his head in apology for getting lost in the past mid-sentence,

"Sorry Ayame-chan, just remembering something funny that happened a while back. Now, where… oh, yeah, as I was saying a lot of the people I'll be tested with have already had either parents or, better still, a whole clan training them for anything up to years. Now I'm not one to complain"; well, not too much at least; "they've got clan training but they've also got a clan name to live up to and all that entails, so overall I'm probably no better or worse off than anyone else from a non-ninja family trying to join up. Still", his blue eyes twinkled with a strange, mischievous kind of mirth as he twirled his chopsticks around his fingers, another method of increasing finger dexterity Yoshino had mentioned to him that helped with the speed of forming hand-seals, "since when do ninja ever work on a level playing field? Me and everyone else, if they're smart, will be out to get our hands on every advantage we can find, no matter what it takes, so really, can I help it if I'm a little more… creative, than most?"

At that moment in time, both the Uzumaki's smile and the sudden shadow that had fallen over his eyes, both Ichirakus were given the barest glimpse behind the mask of the child, the merest insight into the beast that had been bedevilling the shinobi corps of the village for the better part of a year and some. It was a rare sight and a somewhat unsettling one; much as Ayame and Teuchi both knew Naruto had hidden depths, neither of them could have possibly guessed just how deep those veiled passageways in his mind ran or how adept he was at using them to befuddle and frustrate those who would place obstacles in his path or find a way around such obstacles rather than battering his way through them as most others would. Confronted with such an unexpected facet of the boy they considered either a second-son or a younger brother, both Ichirakus seemed to simultaneously divert themselves from further talk of the exams themselves and move on to other, rather more stable topics, like how the Sandaime was getting on and if he was still sparring with that young Yamanaka girl,

"Who, buta-hime? Oh yeah", Naruto gave a victorious chuckle as he rubbed the side of his chin as though in remembrance of a previous punch, "and she's really not very happy about it at the minute".

"Why's that?" Even as she asked the question, however, a sudden suspicion flared up in Ayame's mind, "You haven't been going too rough on her have you Naruto-kun; I know you shouldn't go easy on her just because she's a girl but there are still limits in sparring and you should always respect them".

"I know and I do Ayame-chan", the blonde assured his sister figure before carrying on, a gleeful smirk on his lips as he recollected both the bouts he'd fought against Ino in the last month of so and, more importantly, the way her haughty little face had screwed up as though she'd been forced to simultaneously swallow sour milk and spit out bile as she repeatedly made her declaration of lament that her most hated sparring partner hadn't been born into the Yamanaka clan, "but Ino-chan's been getting a nasty shock as of late. Since I started training with the other clans and not just her I've started rolling her over more and more and she hates it; Inoichi's certain she's going to pass the exams tomorrow just so she can follow me into the Academy and try to make my life there a living hell. Hah, as if it was going to be a cake-walk even without her there trying to take a chunk out my hide every chance she gets". Ayame's ears pricked at this and, with the instincts inherent to all older siblings the world over, moved in on the scent of blood with the unerring accuracy of a hunting shark,

"Sounds like somebody not a million miles from here has a little crush going on", she trilled in a sing-song tone, smiling and hearing her father have to stifle a chuckle just behind her as Naruto spluttered into the dregs of his last bowl of ramen for a moment before recovering his composure and retorting in kind,

"Yeah, you're probably right Ayame-chan, but much as I'd like to I don't think I'd survive what Inoichi-san would do to me if I indulged his daughter's begging for a date". Teuchi was forced to look away as Ayame, slightly better at concealing her amusement, leant over the bar slightly and adopted an expression of furtive cunning,

"And what's it worth I don't tell young Ino-san you just said that?"

"About as much as a sparrow's tear", Naruto shot straight back, the typical measure of something worth almost less than nothing catching the younger Ichiraku off-guard; sparrow tears? Does he really not care…?; "she already hates my guts so I doubt throwing any more fuel on the fire's going to make the blindest bit of difference". Ayame blinked, thought for a second, then a second longer before eventually conceding defeat and settling her weight back behind the bar as her father, having recovered from his earlier hiccup of laughter, covered her retreat,

"I'd doubt it too Naru-kun but just remember it's likely you'll have to work with this girl, not to mention the rest of your classmates, at some stage in the future if you get through the Academy, so try not to rub too many people up the wrong way when you're going through school together ne?"

"Don't worry jiji, I've got it in hand"; just like kaa-san did; memories of the stories the friends of the previous jinchuuriki of the bijuu he held within him bubbled to just below the surface of his mind at the same time as he answered the owner of his favourite ramen store; she made a habit of tweaking the noses of those in power and seemed to get away with it; "I'll deal once I get through the tests tomorrow; this time next week I'll be telling you how the first five days at the Academy went".

With that and realising he had places to be later in the evening, Naruto hopped off his stool and headed for home, breathing in the cooling night air and letting the breath out slowly, coalescing his internal thoughts as he did so and putting them into some sort of mental order, ready for the tasks tomorrow. Thus far he was reasonably ready in all the areas he could truly prepare for save the one Ayame-chan had highlighted and, even as he moved away from the ramen shack towards the last place he had to visit prior to turning himself in for the night. As he moved down the streets with the practiced ease of one who knew them by rote and could follow them with his eyes closed the last words of his adoptive sister whispered themselves into his ears and were at the same time overlapped with the declaration of another woman who was something akin to an older sister to him, not that he'd ever let her find that out or admit it for fear of emasculation via snake-bites to the groin.

As much as Ayame-chan might have been concerned that his trick cards might have gotten him in trouble, there was no denying the fact that Anko-sensei had a salient point when she admitted that, for shinobi and even shinobi-in-training, everything was legal as long as you weren't caught.

XXX

Nerves and, more pressingly, feet were everywhere in the strange place; as he stuck close to his partner and pack-alpha, Akamaru nevertheless kept his eyes open to the presence of other, familiar two-legs around him; though no human would ever believe him had he been able to voice the thought, he and a lot of other nin-ken pups were able to recognise a large number of two-legs by differences at ankle-height. Brother-Kiba and older-sister-Hana were there, as were the three-older-brothers that older-sister-Hana was alpha of, but through the crowd of legs the pup's eyes were able to alight on something very bright even in his reduced colour-vision; though the ankles he would otherwise have been looking for were covered in fabric, no other two-legs wore a false-fur of that shade. Alerting the rest of the Pack around him, the nin-ken pup put on a friendly demeanour as he watched the feet he'd detected alter course to move towards himself and, even over the scent of a crowd, a very specific and subtle scent that the three-older-brothers and alpha-Kuromaru had taught him to recognise. As a soft but constricting grip seized him around the middle and the world span away from him, the scent came ever stronger into his sensitive nose and, a moment later, his tongue rasped the salt off human skin as the bearer of such a distinctive perfume introduced himself and scratched his ear dangerously close to that little spot that somehow made him lose control.

He could barely distinguish the human speech, so much more complicated and relying on mere words than more subtle tells of body language and odour that most two-legs were blind to, therefore he didn't know the actual human name of the two-legs who was Pack but at the same time not blood-family. He knew the title used by most of the Pack though, had been told that in no uncertain terms by alpha-Kuromaru and, at first, had thought it was his duty to hate the one who bore the smell of both man and animal; with age, however, had come experience and he now had some inkling of the relationship between the Pack and the estranged member of the Pack. With this new knowledge and having been told to stories of the adventures of one of the three-older-brothers, in the part of his mind that wasn't currently a panorama of complete bliss he was happy that brother-Kiba had a good relationship with brother-Fox.

XXX

Luckily the trip from his place of residence to the Academy wasn't all that long as, to Naruto, it appeared that he had somehow forgotten, or perhaps begun to understand, just how much the general populous of his village passively despised him.

The cold wall of silence and disapproval that seemed to spring up between him and virtually everyone else in Konoha as he approached them seemed a lot more bitter and sharp than he remembered, though as he thought about it and tried to get the Academy with his head held high at the same time as keep a weather eye out that no-one was going to actually try anything to stop him getting there, when had been the last time he'd actually walked around the village in his own skin? His Book of Faces was less an actual book and more a diary of close friends and reinforcements he could call upon at will to make his life easier but, at the same time, using masks as he had seemed to have stripped off some of his formerly thick skin – he doubted he'd have even noticed about the frigid glares lanced into him now from every quarter even a year ago. Then again; once more he was buoyed slightly by his natural optimism, enough so that he smiled at the older man staring death at him from over the top of his newspaper, chuckling quietly as the man went paler and thrust his paper upwards to break eye-contact, as though afraid the jinchuuriki's gaze alone could petrify him to stone; since I started working with ninja I had a lot less of this, and however much the civilians might want to deny it, they know where the real power in Konoha lies.

Fortunately, as he got closer to the shinobi school buildings, the glares diminished in favour of the parents of the families migrating towards the Academy attempting to soothe the nerves of worried progeny, though the pessimistic side of Naruto's normally sunny personality, somewhat more pronounced following his introduction and repeated exposure to the avatar of his mental defence against possible intrusion from the Kyuubi when the bijuu eventually woke up, a being he usually referred to as Fuhei, Nakigotowoiu hito or in the few instances he had cause to be polite to the solemn spectre of misery, Yami, he would have been prepared to bet a weeks' worth of scrap that more than one of the children who would be his classmates were getting a less-than-friendly word in their ear about him. Still, there wasn't much he could do about that apart from square his shoulders and soldier on, though as he approached the main thoroughfare that led towards the honoured seat of shinobi learning a sudden yap, almost lost amid the noise and bustle, made him glance around, catch a glimpse of a familiar trio and, with a smile, alter his course to intercept the Inuzuka,

"Hi guys", his voice announced his arrival, one hand raised in greeting as he observed Kiba squat down and scoop his nin-ken up into his arm, not wanting to risk Akamaru getting accidentally stepped on in the crush developing at the gates of the school, "well Kibble, nervous?"

"Huh, no chance", the youngest Inuzuka scion laughed off such a question in a tone that virtually concealed the nerves that were doubtless eating him alive from the inside; as the child of a clan and, worse still, a clan head, Kiba had a pressure to perform that Naruto himself as an orphan was exempt from; though, if people actually knew I was the son of the Fourth, I somehow doubt that'd be the case for long; "I'll deal with this no problem".

"I should hope so", his sister chipped in, smiling at Naruto as the jinchuuriki fussed Akamaru with one hand and one of the Haimaru with the other, her partners having crowded around the jinchuuriki after being alerted to his coming by the youngest four-legged member of the pack present, "I told you I'd make sure you'd get into the Academy even if I had to nail your backside to a seat and hot-house you nightly to get the information through that iron head of yours. Don't look at me like that", she demanded as Kiba threw her a filthy look, "you'll thank me when you pass".

"Yeah, thank you by stapling your ears to your pillow", Kiba threatened half-heartedly before turning his attention back to his friend just in time to hear Naruto's apology,

"Oh, sorry Aka-kun", he withdrew his hand from the nin-ken's head, watching with relief as his hind leg stopped kicking, "that didn't hurt did it?" Kiba chuckled, shifting his grip on his partner to hold Akamaru against his jacket with one hand and stroke his head with the other,

"Nah, you just hit a kicky-spot; not sure why but some nin-ken do that if you hit the right places", Kiba explained before placing the puppy on the floor again and straightening up, "anyway, you ready for this?" It was Naruto's turn to chuckle,

"I was born ready", he assured his friend before looking around to see if anyone else he recognised had shown up despite it still being a half-hour early, "I'll just be glad to get started; I hate waiting around more than I do the actual tests"; ain't that the truth – compared to the background reading, observation and guard-room tracking you have to do, actually infiltrating somewhere's a lot of fun. Still, suppose that's true for every kind of test, oh, hi guys; spotting someone as easily recognisable as the Inuzuka delegation that he recognised he waved, luckily catching the eye of the quartet of Hyuuga and, a brief moment later, bowing in greeting to the clan head and his immediate family.

Interesting; as he'd half-suspected and confirmed with the merest glimpse of his bloodline, Hiashi found himself not for the first time wondering if the Uzumaki actually planned for half the things he set into motion to happen or if the majority of them were simply a happy accident. He didn't even need the Byakugan to see the expressions of the people around him blossoming into shock and, in some cases, disbelief as they realised that the most august clan in the village had at least some knowledge of the village pariah, and the clan head of the Hyuuga himself was not so proud as to refuse to bend his shoulder and reciprocate the bow Naruto sent his way,

"Hyuuga-sama", once more Naruto showed his memorisation of the nuances of manners; though he would have been within his rights to address Hiashi by his first name, the more formal use of the Hyuuga's clan name was a show of deference to a social superior that not everyone, least of all a child with no ostensible breeding or experience, would have been expected to pick up on,

"Uzumaki-san", Hiashi intoned in turn, his greeting not quite as respectful and his bow a lot shallower, as would have been expected by a superior both in terms of social standing and shinobi prowess. Naruto, as always when in public, let this pass without comment, instead choosing to greet the three children Hiashi had brought with him,

"Neji-senpai…"; Mitarashi-san does excellent work; behind his opaque eyes Hiashi's thoughts were well-hidden but still positive regarding the jinchuuriki as his nephew returned the bow; his manners have only improved since the service; "…Hinata-sama…"; with some more refinement, he could quite easily pass as a messenger to the Daimyo's court or, should he use his henge, a courtesan in that court – his bows are almost perfectly text-book and his use of suffixes exemplary;

"…Precious-chan".

And, as always with dealing with Uzumaki Naruto, I spoke in haste and can now repent at leisure; holding in a sigh with great difficulty as he watched the ripple of fury race around his youngest daughter's short frame, the clan head treated the blonde to a brief exposure of the Hyuuga's version of a withering glare that, unfortunately, was robbed of most of its effect by the sudden snickers from the clan head the Uzumaki was closest to, Tsume just about mastering her chuckles as she glanced down at the simmering pint-sized Hyuuga,

"He got you with a nick-name too huh? Speak to someone who understands", by her side Kuromaru gave an irritated growl and stepped away from her in disgust as she flicked his remaining ear, though his single eye still roved around to face Hanabi and he inclined his head in a manner that, even without words, seemed to convey his annoyance of the situation, "aside from that though, surprised you brought the little one with you Hiashi-san; seen any of the others yet?"

"We are still before time so I would doubt we will see most of the others for some time, least of all the Nara and their allies", the Hyuuga lord commented, keeping half an eye on where his youngest was inching slowly towards the assembled canines of the Inuzuka clan and resigning himself to picking dog hairs off her kimono before he could leave Hinata and Neji to the Academy for the rest of the day, "and since Hanabi-san is likely to be here some years in the future, I thought it prudent to introduce her to some of the nuances of the shinobi Academy".

"And, hopefully by that time, some of the constants as well", Naruto chipped in, grinning broadly as he raised a hand in Hanabi's direction, causing the youngest Hyuuga present to scowl even as slowly extended a hand towards where one of the Haimaru waited for her with a passive expression on its lean features, "don't worry 'Nabi-chan, if they put me in charge of your class I promise I'll act professional and look past the adorable pouting face to treat you just like the rest of the class".

As the face of the second-heir to the most prestigious clan of the Leaf village dropped at the thought of the insufferable orange buffoon before her even attempting to teach the ways of the shinobi to anyone, it was perhaps fortunate for Hanabi's sense of self-importance that her attention was grabbed and held to ransom by following the almost maternal expression of Tsume-sama's face as her slit-eyed gaze travelled between the Uzumaki and Hanabi herself; better horror at the thought of anyone thinking that the evil blonde-haired idiot was safe to let within fifty feet of the future of Konoha's shinobi force than outright disbelief and betrayal at seeing a similar look flash across the face and shaking shoulders of her father,

"Dear Kami-sama I already feel sorry for any offspring you might spawn", the Inuzuka alpha chuckled, glancing between the glaring Hanabi and Naruto's cheerfully unconcerned expression, "you're going to be an unbearable embarrassment to your kids when you're old enough to have them".

"Well what can I say, I leant from the best", he riposted, Tsume raising an eyebrow as the younger child shrugged and carried on, "then again, that's a long way in the future – I'll deal with earning my headband before I even think about looking for a better half".

"I don't know", over the year or so since he'd really been introduced to the last Uzumaki one of the things that had evolved in Kiba was his ability to irritate those around him in a constructive, non-hurtful manner, a habit he seemed to have picked up from his friend as though by osmosis because Naruto had never outright taught him the skill he now put into practice by shooting a very pointed look towards his sister, "I can think of one person who'd be first in the queue if you asked. No, wait", he immediately cowered as Hana's eyes flashed death in his direction and she stalked towards him with a fist poised threateningly, "I need to pass the exams!"

For a horrible moment it appeared that not even that logic would dissuade Hana from taking the pound of flesh she felt she was owed but, even as Kiba cringed and braced for the pain, he was granted a last-minute reprieve by his mother's words,

"Hana-chan, much as he might deserve it leave off"; saved; even as the relieved smile began to spread across his face however, Tsume shot his hopes down in flames, "you can pound him into the floor when he gets home". It was the older of the Inuzuka siblings' turn to grin, Kiba once more wincing in preparation before the matriarch shook her head at the pair of them and rolled her head slightly, wincing at the crack she heard before giving a whistle that all five nin-ken present perked their ears up to,

"Right, assuming you've got everything you need brat, we're done here. Good luck and tell me about it when you get back".

"No problem kaa-san", Kiba assured her, Akamaru also giving a reassuring bark before rubbing noses with the larger members of the pack as they departed, Kuromaru's scarred muzzle the last to brush against the pup before he turned to leave after giving one final comradely sort of look towards Hanabi, the Hyuuga to her credit meeting his one-eyes gaze without flinching too much. Seeing Tsume's idea Hiashi thought for a second before deciding it had a worthwhile merit and, to that end, spoke simultaneously to his daughters and the other children that were left behind,

"Hanabi-san, come", as though attached to her father by an invisible wire the girl retreated to his side, back straight and perfectly erect as was expected of a Hyuuga of the Main house, "it is time for us to take our leave. Hinata-san", to her credit the eldest of his children didn't flinch as she said his name, instead straightening her normally-hunched posture and nodding in silence as he made his decree, "bring honour to our clan".

"Hai chichi-ue", the aspiring kunoichi demurred quietly, watching on with her cousin as her father and younger sister departed and feeling icy tendrils of nervousness crawling over her skin at the sight of their retreating backs. It was all up to her now, the entirety of the Hyuuga name left on her shoulders and she already knew she wasn't going to be able to bring to it the honour that was needed; why was she even here in the first place? She was never going to be much of a kunoichi just like she'd never been much of a clan heir, cousin, sister or daughter – no matter how much that young chunin with the red eyes tried to encourage her there was no point; she would pass the Academy; oh please Kami let me pass the Academy, there hasn't been a Hyuuga from the Main house yet who failed – my father wouldn't be able to bear the shame if I were the first; but to be the ninja her clan and village needed her to be, that was a distant dream at…

"Hey, 'Nata-chan – whoa", backpedalling frantically, Naruto just about managed to avoid tripping over his feet as the girl he'd carelessly tapped on the shoulder shot upwards like a bottle-rocket – hastily holding his hands up in a pacifying gesture, he carefully spoke again in response to her startled shock, "easy, cool down Hinata – I know you're nervous but you'll do fine, all of us will. Remember last time we all got together, you did brilliantly then and you'll do the same now I'm sure". At first Naruto wasn't sure reminding the Hyuuga scion of the last time they'd come face to face was having the desired effect as her face grew, if anything, brighter than it had from the kiss of his touch on her shoulder; however just before he was about to speak again it appeared Hinata managed to regain at least some of her composure and answer in her usual, somewhat tremulous fashion,

"Hai, but, but I was very lucky then…"

"And if that's the case I'm sure you'll be even 'luckier' now", Naruto assured her, his experience with the frustratingly shy Hyuuga telling him he had to keep the momentum going and plough through the front door of the fortress she liked to wall herself up in before she could slam the portcullis down, "take it from me forcing Nara Shikaku to forfeit a good pot on just a pair of queens is not something that can be done with just dumb luck and a pretty face".

The memory and back-handed compliment both made Hinata's face burn even as she remembered she hadn't been actively trying to win at the time; the only way she could have been able to bluff the Nara clan leader was simply because he couldn't penetrate the absolute bundle of nerves she'd been wrapped up in since Ko-san had roused her unexpectedly from a suspiciously early retirement for the night. That night had been a torment and more than once Hinata had been certain that one of the assembled clan heads, each of whom must have been able to see right through whatever feeble pretence of strength she managed to portray, was going to say something about it but they all seemed either to be too polite to mention it or felt it not worth their time and effort; by the time she had been dismissed about the only thing that stopped her passing out on her bed from the mental fatigue of trying to act her part as the Hyuuga heir to so many important people for so long in such close confines was the fact that her tiredness knocked her out first.

Here, however, she was out of the clan grounds and that meant that the onus was now completely on her to uphold her clans' image; there was no Ko or even Kurenai to look out for her if she were to besmirch her clans' honour now. Because of this she silently cursed herself in her own mind, tried to force the blush on her face to recede as much as she was able to and managed a wan smile as Naruto, a boy she privately wished had been born into her life as he would have been able to complete her duties so much more effectively than she could, turned towards the other boy she recognised but couldn't put a name to and made to introduce the heirs of the respective, if wildly different, clans,

"Anyway I'm sure you've heard of each other but just to make it official, Hinata this is Inuzuka Kiba, second-heir of the Inuzuka clan and Kiba, this is Hyuuga Hinata, heir of the Hyuuga and her cousin Neji, a Jyuuken user of some repute already and don't give me that look", Neji promptly broke off his light glare as Naruto held up a pacifying hand, "I've heard the rest of the clan speak about you; even the Main house have to give you credit for how quick you pick up the katas".

"True but there is such a thing as keeping your flames hidden under a bushel Naruto-san", Neji pointed out after returning the bow of the Inuzuka scion and returning to his full height again, "I would have thought you of all people would be an exemplar of such manners".

"True but something tells me I'll need to let at least some of that fire burn to get joined up to this place; though I'm pretty sure doing most of your homework for the past nine months will stand me in good stead".

His last words were a shout directed over the heads of the two Hyuuga; as they turned around at the sound of a somewhat dismissive laugh Neji felt his eyebrow rise somewhat as the familiar sight of Hasuwada Tenten filled his vision. The girl in question nodded at his unspoken greeting before setting her sight on the orange form before her, hands on hips as she leered down and responded to his challenge,

"Oh yeah? Listen mush, the amount of money I spent on rubbers and erasing fluid to make sure the sensei's wouldn't see the mess you left on the paper while you were working things out could have brought me my own forge so less of the lip, got it?"

"Which lip?" Naruto rolled his eyes down and pouted in an exaggerated fashion to trying and see them both, voice mangled by trying to speak through such an expression as he went on, "Top or bottom?" Tenten scowled and clenched her fist menacingly,

"Both, unless you want them fattening".

"Mean Ten-hime", Naruto retreated somewhat, turning to Kiba as the Inuzuka tried to size up the newcomer; he'd heard of Tenten of course but the two had never met and because of that he was a little wary of the stranger, despite Naruto's animated and at times lurid explanations as to who the blacksmith's daughter was, "anyway, why are you here so early? Come to wish us luck?" Tenten laughed,

"If I thought you needed it I'd do just that, as it is I'm sure you'll be fine. No", she shook her head, hair held in place as though it were pinned in its buns by nails rather than mere hairclips, "I'm sure you'll all do okay; the exams really aren't as bad as everyone thinks they are". Even as the words left her lips, however, Tenten knew she'd said the wrong thing as her oldest friends' eyes sparkled,

"I guess not; you passed after all"; ouch, boy did I walk into that one; doing her best to hide her wince behind a scowl so filthy even a starved cur wouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole, the former orphan snorted dismissively and turned her attention to the other person present she recognised,

"Neji", the Hyuuga, having eventually gotten used to the lack of honorifics used by virtually the entire Academy after a solid year of exposure and thus resigned to another day without the comfort of social structure and form, merely nodded at his name and, considering this to mean assent, Tenten soldiered on, "let's leave the kiddies to it and get to class, I've got a few questions for Yakushi-sensei before class starts. You three, when the bells rings just stay in the playground until someone starts shouting at you, they'll sort you out from there, and Naruto if you're not in the underclass below me by the end of the day", the Hasuwada's eyes hardened into stones so sharp and frigid even the jinchuuriki dropped back a pace, "you'll have me to deal with".

With that the taller girl span on her heel and departed, Neji trailing in her wake for a few strides after giving the required farewell to his Main branch cousin and whispering the classroom he was usually in should she need to find him for an emergency during her tests. As he watched the Hyuuga catch up to his classmate and then begin catching up with her, Naruto merely shook his head and grinned as he glanced around and watched his friend regard the now-retreating girl with trepidation in Kiba's case and outright alarm with Hinata's,

"Don't panic, her bark's a lot worse than her bite", he told them, smiling at the retreating back of the Hasuwada girl; Kiba, however, wasn't convinced,

"Really? Sounds like she meant what she said".

"She did, though I have to admit she's got a point – if I don't get in there really is no excuse, not after all the work people did to try and get me up to speed for this. Including you Hinata-chan", the Hyuuga immediately ducked slightly as the spotlight of attention illuminated her, freezing the blood in her veins as she tried to come up with some kind of answer that would at least attempt to make her sound like less of a blithering idiot than she knew she was, "you feeling confident? I know for a fact you've got a strong shout in the showdown on Friday and if you're as light on your feet as you are shuffling cards you're an absolute shoe-in for our class".

What is it about this girl?; much as he had learnt enough over even the short time he'd been worldly-wise enough to appreciate both the fairer sex and how much the rules of both Shikamaru's parents applied to them, in as much that their feminine logic overrode everything else and every single one of them was both unique and weird, Hinata still puzzled him despite knowing her for about six months now. She appeared to be a walking contradiction, at the same time incredibly strong but seemingly terrified of her own strength and what other people might think of her if she let that strength show. Try as he might to worm his way in and gently encourage her to open up Hinata remained as much of an enigma now as she had been then, a challenge wrapped up in a puzzle that he could only hope he would someday put together through sheer dumb luck and the help of the rest of the Academy pitching in to try and ease her towards something like a calm state of mind. For now, however, he merely held in a sigh and resigned himself to another failure in the case of the Hyuuga heir, though he couldn't help but give his final warning even as he glanced away to give her some privacy to cool her now-fiery face,

"Don't do it Hina-chan; I'd hate to have to TYN now", even though he was facing away from the slightly smaller girl he fancied he could see the expressions flickering over her face just as they had so often in the past; surprise, confusion, realisation, shame and determination, most likely in that order – damn it Hinata; even if he did his best to control it Naruto did sometimes have a suspect temper that was most often irked by the presence of a problem where there should be, to his eyes, no problem at all, and his inability to solve or at least help to solve such problems as they emerged; you'd be the kunoichi you seem to think you need to be if you'd just give up your fear of trying anything. Chime-sensei was right; though not officially a sensei of his, Naruto was always careful to address the Akimichi matriarch as such when he was shoulder to shoulder with her son learning the absolute basics of swordplay, though even at this early stage he was beginning to suspect he would never be truly suited for blade-work even if he picked up the etiquette of the samurai rituals easily enough; failure is the mother of success – if you don't even try anything new you'll never grow. All he could do was gently threaten her with the TYN, or Tap-Your-Nose, if she resorted to pressing her fingers together, a threat she knew beyond doubt he wouldn't hesitate to use if she fell back into bad habits. Luckily, feeling the atmosphere start to curdle somewhat, Kiba was on-hand to divert attention and make a suggestion to clear the air,

"Hey guys", both Naruto and Hinata glanced his way as he jerked a thumb off to one side, "let's get inside the grounds, we can wait for everyone else there. Least that way we won't be late; hey, no – ah, Akamaru", once more he was left to wonder if the puppy who was supposed to be his partner and soul-mate for life was instead some kind of macabre joke being played on him by a mischievous Kami of some kind; bad enough the pup had 'scent-marked' him within about fifteen seconds of them being introduced, now he was jumping up at a pretty girl who just happened to be the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the village, "sorry Hinata-san, he won't bite. Get down", he barked at the juvenile nin-ken, somewhat relieved when Akamaru actually obeyed him and even more relieved when Hinata didn't seem to take offence; just as well – I don't think her father would look kindly on washing paw-prints off her kimono and from what I've heard the Jyuuken hurts.

"Good idea Kiba", seeing nothing better to do Naruto picked up the idea and ran with it, leading the way through the gates he'd previously crossed only twice before, the aftermath of the more recent of those trips still in his mind and somewhat grateful that, from behind him, he heard the first stilted, shy snippets of conversation regarding Kiba's nin-ken between the two clan children that might one day mature into one of the many, many friendships all of them would need to survive in the grim, unpleasant world of the ninja.

XXX

Luckily as time went on before the Academy started properly Naruto was able to catch the attention of the majority of the children his own age he knew and alert them to Tenten's advice; due to this when the loud, tinny noise of the starting bell for the school echoed across the crowded playground the jinchuuriki and his friends were an oasis of sanity in the maelstrom around them, a lot of their potential future classmates running around without a clue of what to do or where they should go until, mercifully, a loud clarion call of a voice cut through the chaos like an explosive tag,

"Okay new people; two lines in front of the main entrance now", as he and everyone else scrambled to obey, Naruto caught a glimpse of the person giving the orders, a kunoichi wearing a chunin vest of the fairly ordinary height and build that was striding towards them with a clear intent in her manner as she beheld the seething squall of children before her, "shorties in front, beanpoles behind. Get moving, I don't have all day".

It took a few minutes for the chaos to settle down but eventually there were a pair of parallel lines facing the woman who the majority of the potential intake were beginning to suspect was likely to be one of their future teachers should they pass all the required exams. Due to this Naruto spent a few seconds scrutinising the kunoichi before him, taking in the seemingly well-worn condition of her vest and deciding she'd likely been a chunin for a few years at most and was either holding a teaching position because it was a requirement prior to attempting promotion to jounin, or she was happy with chunin and had some skill at teaching; and either way's good. Potential jounin will run us hard to show they can hold a team together but full-time teaching chunin will know what they're doing; before he could think too much further about either of these potential scenarios however, he and everyone else in the two rows were silenced from their muted chattering as the woman addressed them once more,

"Right, you shower of wannabe shinobi", it was the voice of someone who expected them all to listen and not interrupt and, true to form, none of them did as the kunoichi tracked her eyes across the twin lines in front of her, "I'm one of the chunin who'll be administering the tests you'll be running today to see if you can somehow scrape the grade that might one day make you one of the elite of the village, Kami help the rest of us if that were ever to happen. You will address me as Uzashi-sensei and raise your hand if you have a question; speaking out loud will result in either you putting your foot in your mouth or me doing it for you. I and the rest of the sensei expect professional behaviour at all times today", it could just have been his imagination but Naruto could have sworn Uzashi's eyes lingered on him while that remark echoed in the air; sounds like she's had a bad experience in the past and has a kunai to grind now. Though, then again when it comes to me and the ninja corps, who amongst them doesn't have a reason to try and kick my rear end?; "so, no time like the present; follow me kids, nice warm-up jog to start".

With that Uzashi turned on her heel and paced to the end of the two lines, issuing clipped instruction for the two lines to stick as lines during the run and not to try overtaking in case someone slipped and got trampled. Some minutes later the lines got underway and Naruto found himself following in the footsteps of another, slightly taller boy than himself who he didn't recognise; as he had been unceremoniously pushed into the front line of the two as he was one of the shortest children in his year group, the Uzumaki found himself following a pair of heels he'd never seen before and kept up an easy pace as the sensei led them around the Academy grounds and then out of the rear gates, towards the training grounds the Academy maintained and the challenges that awaited the children there.

XXX

No way, though then again, how long have I been running for in my life?; not for the first time Naruto had a reason to thank his somewhat unusual and erratic education up to this point – okay chances were he wasn't the sharpest kunai in the pouch in terms of raw brainwork, but on the other hand a quick forty-five minute hike didn't leave him on his knees and gasping for air like it did some of his contemporaries. Uzashi-sensei had led them on a roundabout route but the pace had alternated between, for him, a swift march and a steady jog, the similar sort of things he'd been doing since he was five out on the training ground, least of all when it looked like rain was in the offering and he had to get back to Konoha before the clouds broke. Glancing around at the other children around him he was relieved to see that most of his friends were looking none the worse for wear following the exertion, even Chouji who, despite his obvious size, was a very competent endurance runner (speed, on the other hand, was virtually guaranteed to be out of his reach save in very short bursts the same way it was for all Akimichi), though as his eyes roved he found his gaze suddenly arrested by a very distinctive shock of hair.

She was, that's her, the girl I met with Ten-chan when I went to school that one day; luckily memories of the mouse dissection were little more than a repressed memory, one that was no doubt giving Yami yet another reason for being a pain in his ass whenever he delved into his own mind to check if the Kyuubi in his belly was waking up at last, but he'd not forget hair that shade of pink in a while. Realising quickly that the girl wouldn't recognise him, he came up with a fast plan to get an introduction; as a result of this plan Haruno Sakura felt a shadow fall over her and glanced up from where he was stooped, hands on knees, to see a blonde-haired boy with a slightly concerned look on his face offer a small bottle forwards,

"Here, look like you could use some of this", he pointed out, waggling the bottle a little and letting the water inside slosh around; as he'd hoped and expected Sakura grabbed for it but he kept hold, a slightly more warning look on his face as the girl glanced up at him, "sip, don't gulp it or you'll be sick".

"I know that", Sakura snapped back grumpily, though she did take only slow swigs of the water he offered before passing it back and nodding, "thanks, uhh, hey, wait a minute", Naruto raised an eyebrow but otherwise remained passive as the girl scrutinised his face more closely, "who are you? I've never seen you at school before – what are you doing here?"

"I never went to school and I'm here to become a ninja, same as you are", he answered both questions succinctly, ignoring her sudden expression of surprise as she tried to comprehend someone not attending the civilian Academy, "anyway, fair's fair – what's your name?"

"Huh? Oh, Sakura", belatedly the girl remembered her manners and bowed slightly, "Haruno Sakura, and I never got your name".

"Probably because I never gave it", Naruto pointed out before scooting backwards as the girls' green eyes suddenly flashed dangerously: wow, touchy-touchy – doesn't know how to take or roll with a joke yet; "Uzumaki Naruto, at your service".

"Naruto", Sakura repeated, rolling the name around with a slightly confused expression before focussing on the boy again, "any idea why your parents called you Fishcake?" Naruto, despite himself, winced,

"It means Maelstrom", he pointed out through slightly gritted teeth, "and I'm hoping it'll be a bloody long time before I get a chance to ask my parents why they decided on that name; I'm an orphan", he explained gently, holding up a hand to forestall the apologies he could see was coming from Sakura's mortified expression, "no, no need for any of that – I'm not the only one in the village, in fact I doubt I'm the only one here".

"Still, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to rake up the past", the girl said meekly before deciding to brazen it out and come completely clean to expunge her sudden guilty conscience, "it was just something I heard Ino-chan say – she always talked, or actually usually moaned about, a boy she called Fishcake and how he was going to try and get to be a ninja here. Is it true you can beat her sparring?" That admission made Naruto pause for a second before a voice from the past whispered in his ear and he understood; she's got friends other than me right Inoichi, and she's already warned them a little about what I'm about huh? Good; a small part of his mind smirked and mentally complimented the Yamanaka heir for her pre-emptive work; I'd hate the Academy to be too easy;

"Well sometimes I beat her, sometimes she beats me, it's all swings and roundabouts really", he shrugged, understatement as always one of the major planks of his success, "still, we won't be sparring again until the end of the week, hopefully they'll pit us against each other and, well, if that happens all I can say is have the med-nins on standby and stand well back!"

Sakura giggled, the reaction Naruto had been hoping for as it banished memories of her earlier slip-up regarding his parents; realising his eyes were still on her the girl pulled herself together and smiled again,

"Thanks for that, either way thanks for the drink. Why do you carry water on you anyway?"

"You should always carry water", Naruto replied nonplussed, as to him carrying extra supplies was as natural as having a spare kunai and shuriken to hand, "what happens if you get cut off behind enemy lines? Can't just drink out of streams Sakura-chan, you'll go down ill – always have enough food and water to keep you going".

"Really?" Actually, yeah that makes a lot of sense; "Thanks, I'll remember that for, uh-oh, sensei's talking"; forewarned by his new friends' pointing finger, the Uzumaki turned around just in time to catch the first words Uzashi-sensei spoke to the new crop of potential graduates,

"Right, that's enough lying about scratching yourselves; you want to be ninja you get used to working like hell with no rest", the chunin called out, once more demanding the kids to line up in front of her as she explained the first of their tasks, "right, first things' first, who doesn't like heights – tough, get used to them or get out", she said dismissively of the few hands that rose to make such an admission; damn that was sloppy; Naruto, not for the first time, was pleased for the somewhat-eccentric education he'd managed to secure for himself compared to his peers; first, no second rule of the ninja, show no fear and show no pain to the enemy; "see over there, those two trees? Here's the first challenge", she had them in the palm of her hand and, as she whipped a gold-coloured cloth from up her sleeve, Uzashi couldn't help but let a little smirk show on her face – it wasn't her fault it felt so empowering to be able to show off a little in front of an appreciative audience, "we've hung a large number of these in the tree on the left – your job is to get one of these cloths, then run to the tree on your right, climb up it and tie the cloth in its branches. You get points for how high up both trees you go to both get the cloth and tie it, and how quick you are – your scores will be kept by my glamorous assistant over there".

With a flourish Uzashi gestured to a space on the right while tucking the cloth she'd pulled out of thin air into her pocket and, just as the boldest of the class were plucking up the courage to ask the obvious question, there was a blur of black colour and a sound of sudden cawing and another ninja appeared in a shunshin, a clipboard in his hand and picking a pencil from behind his ear, smiling at his fellow tester as he pushed his sunglasses up his nose,

"Ready when you are Uzashi-san".

"Fair enough, no time like the present; we'll go in alphabetical order and don't even think about moaning", she cut off the complaints before they could even get going, "a tiny bloody run like this is nothing for a ninja; when you've had your arm blown off by an enemy jutsu then you've got a cause for complaint. So, from the top, Aburame, get over there and get ready, you go on my shout…"

Having cheered on Chouji and been impressed when the Akimichi had managed what he thought of as a fair time despite his natural disadvantages for a time such as task, Naruto started to sidle sideways slightly to the right, eventually catching up with his quarry as the first of the children with a family name ending with 'D' set off at a sprint towards the tree in the distance,

"So, I have to call you Aoba-sensei now then?" Fortunately not a muscle twitched on the new chunins' face as he replied out the corner of his mouth,

"'Fraid it'll be Yamashiro-sensei Naruto, and that's only if I draw the bloody kunai and end up with you in my class". Naruto's grin became, if anything, wider,

"I'll do what I can sensei – so", he nodded towards the green jacket Aoba was wearing, "do I dare ask how it happened?"

"Oh, the usual; a mission went wrong, high-ranked missing-nin showed up, I pulled it all together and managed to get everyone out safe, got kissed by the princess client and then sworn to secrecy about what happened, so don't tell anyone or you'll get a visit in the middle of the night by the men in black cloaks".

"LS-GC?" Damn it he didn't even blink, and I thought that was a good story;

"LS-GC", Aoba confirmed with a somewhat chagrined smile, "finally annoyed them so much they gave me the damned vest to get me out of their hair". Naruto merely chuckled,

"Don't do yourself down; a lot of the clan ninja who've watched me sparring have told me for a fact you've been ready for the rank for months if not years – besides, chances are I'll go up in the world same way you did, the skills I've got really don't lend themselves well to either the exams or pulling off big, high-profile missions. I have to stay hidden if I want to stay alive". This time it was the chunin who chortled slightly at the same time as jot down a few notes on his clipboard,

"You and the rest of the ninja force; still, never look down on anyone who gets his or her vest through Long Service, Good Conduct, and if you go that way make sure you never let anyone look down on you, though I'd give it a few years and couple more feet before you take too much offence to that. For now though", the teacher glanced down enough to see Naruto's semi-threatening glare from the jab at his height, "get back to the others – last thing either of us need are accusations of favouritism".

In the face of such knowledge Naruto could do nothing but nod and retreat back to his previous position, making it back just in time to start shouting encouragement to where Hinata had just set off on her run, sneaking a few furtive glances towards his next mission target and working out the best way he had to get at it and hopefully take a big step into reaching the Academy that would be the first step of his shinobi career.

XXX

Not bad; seeing the agile stick-figure before her all but flying up the tree towards the main goal of the exercise Uzashi felt her opinion of the last of the Uchiha clan rise slightly; he's certainly been putting the work in, though from what we've had access to from his psyche evaluations there's a risk he's overdoing it, and overdoing it for all the wrong reasons. Still though, that's a tick in the box for him, and now; glancing down at the next name on her list the chunin felt a sudden sensation of apprehension start to swirl around in her belly like milk in a butter-churn; let's see what the Mouse can do.

"Uzumaki Naruto", there was a sudden pause in the general, whispered conversation that had spread around the training area as the children who had already gone through this first test either exulted or fretted over their performance glanced over, virtually all of them recognising the name either through first-hand experience or, more likely, from parental warnings to stay away from him as Uzashi herself had heard at the Academy gates even this morning, "you're up; start position now".

"Right, no problem sensei", as always the Uzumaki was, or at least appeared to be full of confidence, moving up to the starting position with a definite swagger in his step, "just give me a…no", he tailed off suddenly, colour draining from his face as his finger lanced forwards in time with his shriek of warning, "he's falling!"

Forgetting everything else for the moment Uzashi span around and made ready to sprint or shunshin even if it was too late; that would be all her career needed after the debacle that had been her first jounin test, losing the last Uchiha on her watch due to a broken neck from falling out a tree. She summed up the situation in an instant and, because of that, stumbled to a halt as the evidence of her ears and eyes contradicted each other for a second; Sasuke was seemingly still clambering down from the top boughs of the tallest tree rather than plummeting to his untimely demise; but why would…?

That train of though was abruptly driven off the rails and Uzashi leapt upwards as a sudden hand violated part of her personal space a hand had no right to venture into; face suddenly flaming she whipped around like a scalded tiger but her antagonist must have expected such a thing as all she saw was a blur of orange from the corner of her eye, Naruto running around her the long way to avoid her grab as the chunin had instinctively spun towards the disturbance by the shortest route possible. As he had attacked her left buttock she had spun over her left shoulder and he had therefore run to the right, darting away with a low, evil-sounding cackle as Uzashi was left in his wake, crimson-faced and all but swearing as she realised that in this second experience with the jinchuuriki she'd been left with egg on her face to go with the flour in her hair from the first time their paths had crossed. That kid is going to wind up dead in a ditch before he hits fifteen the rate he's going; the kunoichi thought viciously to herself, knifing Aoba with a sidelong glance as her fellow chunin was currently shaking in an effort to stop himself cracking up at the would-be ninja's bare-faced cheek, before she looked again and realised something she hadn't before about the route Naruto had taken; though, why the hell's he going...?

The realisation crashed down on her like a bucket of ice water and she felt herself shrivel up internally again as she belatedly recognised what Naruto had done – in all honesty it would probably have been less embarrassing if he'd just groped her backside for luck on his run out. Instead he was now more than likely en-route to setting a new record for this first challenge at the same time nailing her name to another, much less palatable claim to fame, for which chunin in their right mind would want to be the one who had to hold their hand up and admit they'd been completely and utterly one-upped by a child who wasn't even a genin yet?

XXX

Even the smallest of sparks can set a world alight – it was a saying from the annals of his illustrious clans' history that was so old there were no remaining records that hinted at its origins. Sasuke had spent a long time scrutinising the old records remaining in his clan home, pouring over ancient lore to search for secrets that could he could use to avenge the ghosts who would haunt his footsteps until their murderer fell by his hand, though it wasn't until he was a great deal older and wiser than the stormy young man he'd been at the time that he was able to look back at this first meeting with Uzumaki Naruto and place it in context with that particular phrase from history.

"'Ware below!"

The sudden shout just as he was about to drop into the lowest branches of the tree he'd scrambled up was enough to break his concentration; able to take only the merest glimpse downwards it was more by the grace of the Kami than any judgement on his part that Sasuke was able to spread his legs to either side at the same time the child who'd yelled the warning leant back, preventing the collision but as a result bringing both children virtually nose-to-nose. Black eyes locked onto blue for a moment before bewhiskered cheeks creased in a smile and the Uchiha was forced to listen for the first time to a voice that would become depressingly familiar over the next several years,

"Wow, that was lucky", the blonde exclaimed before glancing up to the branch Sasuke had just dropped down from and squatting as though ready to jump, "cheers for the dodge, see you at the bottom".

"See you", Sasuke parroted almost unthinkingly, following the orange form's progress as the smaller child hefted himself upwards before blinking and remembering both where he was and, more importantly, that he had a test to finish. Setting face into a scowl of concentration, Sasuke dropped the last six feet to the floor before setting off at his top speed to the finish line, determined to set the best time and take his first step on the long, blood-stained road to avenging his clan and slaying his own brother for the murders Itachi had committed.

XXX

Quickly tying off the cloth in a fast but serviceable knot Naruto couldn't help but feel a touch of pride as he began his descent, noticing as he did that the Uchiha just crossed the finish line as he jumped downwards a few more feet. I hate to boast but damn; the Uzumaki flipped down a few more branches, grateful that he'd learnt to climb throughout his time on the training fields, otherwise this little job would have taken a lot longer than it would have done otherwise; when I want to be I'm damned good, even if that sensei is probably going to be out to get me from day one now. Still, that was tomorrows' problem and he'd deal with it tomorrow – right now as his feet hit the floor and he took off like an arrow towards the end of the task he concentrated only on putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible, throwing himself across the line with bursting lungs and glancing up hopefully at where Aoba made a note on his clipboard, a suspiciously-wide grin on his lips as he avoided eye-contact with the kid who'd just made his day. He didn't dare look at the other examiner though – she was probably steamed enough at him already and one smart comment or even misplaced-grin might well tip her over the edge; instead he did nothing other than cheer on Ino-chan as the Yamanaka, set off right behind him due to the proximity of their clan names, finished off her own run. Only as he moved over to congratulate his fellow blonde as she pushed herself up to her full height was he brought up short along with the rest of the class as the kunoichi chunin spoke up again,

"Right, first one out the way; next up's the assault course which is this way; when we get there we go in reverse alphabetical order, and Uzumaki", Naruto cringed for a moment before slapping on a beguiling smile and daring to meet the irked kunoichi eye to stony eye, "no short cuts this time – we want an accurate assessment of your physical fitness, not a demonstration on how slick you are at cutting corners and getting away with it, okay?"

"Hai sensei", he sighed wearily before joining the others in their former lines, ready for another run to a separate section of the training grounds and already trying to recall what he'd heard about the most common pieces of equipment used in the assault course and how best to work with them to set a good time.

XXX

Luckily the assault course was pre-set and therefore only needed one chunin to oversee the results; this gave Uzashi the excuse she needed to dump the whole thing in Aoba's lap and get some much-needed respite to clear her head by setting up the last of the three challenges the little kiddies would be taking on in the morning. Mind clearing as she tied down another string of twine and bit off the end, the chunin scowled as, despite herself, she couldn't help but feel a touch impressed by the way the Uzumaki had stormed straight into the record books despite the fact he'd used her as a springboard to do so; still, my fault for putting one of those cloths in my back pocket. I said they had to get one but I never specified exactly where from; still, a lesson learnt without blood and pain was one to be treasured as she now knew due to her traumatic experience a few months back that had led to her being sidelined from the main ninja forces for two months while the open fracture of her forearm healed. Now more than ever before Uzashi knew exactly how much more she had to do before even attempting to advance to jounin rank; trying to coast as she had been was not an option, as one of the med-nins who had been there when she'd woken up following the agony of her splintering guard and arm bursting like a thunderclap in her brain had told her sternly.

Hence why she was here now; not only was teaching slightly less physically intense than normal ninja duties and would therefore facilitate her injury rehabilitation but, as an added bonus, her performance would be much more closely scrutinised than it would be on the gate or running missions – perhaps more than any other village, Konoha brooked no dissonance from those who would mould its next generation of ninja. Uzashi had taken and accepted the role of Academy sensei knowing, in fact expecting, that her techniques, teaching methods and personal knowledge would be mercilessly critiqued by everyone from the Hokage down and she'd be expected to improve on any highlighted flaws in her own time and at her own expense. Because of these additional requirements she was reasonably sure that these next two years of her ninja career were going to be very long and grinding, but at the same time would solidify the foundations of her shinobi training enough that some extra chunin missions would be enough for her to qualify for jounin selection once more.

I wondered why Vashishi-taicho wasn't a hundred percent comfortable with putting my name forwards in the first place; at the time she'd convinced herself it was because he didn't want to lose a promising member of his chunin squad to the jounin vest – now, a good deal more tempered by experience, she knew why he'd been so reluctant to cave in to her demands for the attempt to advance in rank; he knew I wasn't ready. Well, I got some sense knocked into me, broken bones and all, so next time I'll get the groundwork done first, rather than trying to build something solid on foundations of sand. Ah; keen ears picking up the unmistakable sound of many pairs of feet moving in her direction, the chunin finished the knotting up the last of the few thread she had left, plucked one experimentally to hear the bell attached to it start ringing musically before pinching it quiet in time to stand up and adopt a waiting posture just before the first rank of children, led by Aoba, appeared on her corner of the training ground, a number of them by now looking sweaty and worse-for-wear as the exertions of doing two relatively-intense physical challenges in quick succession took its toll,

"You took your time", and as always, the examining chunin took no pity on their plight, instead addressing Aoba as he appeared with the rest of his panting pupils, the other chunin merely shrugging,

"Assault course took a little longer than we expected".

"Plenty of cuts for later then", Uzashi filled in the blanks dismissively, a little psychological weakening to see if any of the prospective class would have their moral fibre dissolved away by the thought of going through all this only to have the fatal commiseration letter dropped through their door in the evening, "any drop-outs so far?"

"One or two, I haven't really been paying attention", Aoba admitted, casually cranking up the pressure further before smiling and his kunoichi counterpart and gesturing to the contraption she'd set up behind her, "anyway, let's not keep the would-be shinobi in suspense; care for the introductions to your baby?" Glancing over her shoulder, Uzashi gave a careless shrug,

"Fair enough, I guess – hey", her sudden snap made the children behind Aoba all jump and cringe as she took a few threatening paces towards them, "who told you lot you could relax? Get back in your lines and focus on me". The few groans at this command were quickly stifled by a harsh glare and the fact she quickly whipped out a kunai and let it dance around her fingers for a moment; when she was satisfied all was as it should be, the chunin spoke once more, a little sadistic glee evident in her voice as she gestured to behind her,

"Come into my web said the spider to the fly; well, this little exercise of mine will see if any of you've got any ability whatsoever to act like a ninja and actually be stealthy, rather than blundering around like a herd of elephants like you have been all morning. As you can see, surrounding the training post over there is the web", she pointed out the thick lattice of almost invisible wires that were attached to and around the red-painted training post, thinner than usual to avoid presenting much of a target to the class as she plucked at one of the strings, hearing the bell on it jingle for a moment, Uzashi flicking a finger as though conducting the noise for a moment before pinching the wire and letting the tinny little instrument fall quiet for a moment, "your job is to get through the web and deliver a killing strike to the post over there. This", a couple of the closest students jumped backwards, one of the girls giving a little shriek Uzashi's kunai buried itself in the loam near their feet, "is all you're getting for the job – it's up to you to sneak in, deliver the strike and then get out without setting the web ringing. Just for a change though, we're going to let you lot decide the order – highest marks for those who put their hands up first".

As expected a couple of either brave or foolhardy souls immediately put themselves forwards as the forlorn hope; it was only with the greatest of difficulty that Uzashi managed to avoid rolling her eyes; was I really that young and dumb once upon a time? Ah well, you never know, one of them might have a clue, though I know who I'm keeping my eye on this time; the boy in question, however, wasn't one of those who volunteered to go in first – instead Naruto, like several others, stepped back slightly to observe the first couple of children who squared up to the task, none of them making it to the post but, to their credit, a fair few of them making it further than she'd expected. However, rather unusually, the jinchuuriki didn't seem content to remain in just a single spot, slowly walking around the web slowly, pausing here and there to squat down as though measuring up sizes and gaps in the mess of threads woven around his target; clever boy. Not for the first time Uzashi was impressed by his forethought and, if the scribbles she heard from her companion were anything to go by, she wasn't the only one, Aoba once more making notes on the whole performance and grading the children on how well they were able to navigate the course.

XXX

Okay, reckon this is about it; though it wasn't as long as he'd have liked to observe and pick holes in what he was up against, he was reasonably sure this was about the best spot could find in the time allotted – he wouldn't put it past the senseis testing them to actually put a few extra points in for the people who did volunteer to be test first; courage, after all, was something all ninja needed to operate out in the field; so he didn't want to be one of the last to put his hands up. Instead he waited somewhat patiently for his opportunity and, following Chouji being gingerly extracted from the web after making his strike but setting the bells off while he'd been turning around to try and make his way back out of the danger zone, he decided to make his move.

"Nice one Chou", the Akimichi glanced over at the shout, somewhat pleased that unlike a lot of the thinner people he was competing against for his spot in the Academy, he'd at least made it to the post, "toss us the kunai would you – better get this over with". Chouji chuckled, flipping the ninja dagger over dexterously in his thick fingers before throwing it over to his Uzumaki friend hilt-first,

"Now this'll be worth seeing", the larger boy rumbled as Naruto confirmed to the chunin with the clipboard that he definitely was going next and preparing himself, though as the orange-clad proto-genin drew back his hand as though to throw the weapon Chouji felt his stomach drop; no, he can't be hoping to hit it with a throw, surely.

That had originally been his first thought as well but, even after a few glances, he dismissed it as impossible; though the web had definite gaps at the bottom that even a child as large as he was could squeeze through, higher than about three feet all the threads seemed to come together and start overlapping more into a complete morass that now even a kunai would fit through with any degree of accuracy, to say nothing of the fact the target he was aiming to hit was a lot smaller than a usually training post even if it was only twenty feet from the edge of the web. Besides, the sensei had been specific; only a kill would count and a ricochet would be instant failure, no way the kunai wouldn't set off the web if it deflected off the wood. However Naruto appeared dead-set on what to Chouji looked to be a suicidal course of action, arm drawn back and concentration etched in his face; the whole class appeared to lean in to see if the Uzumaki could do it before, to a succession of gasps, he simply dropped the kunai and to one knee simultaneously, the hand now free of the falling knife whipping down to one of the numerous pockets in his jumpsuit.

Even when the smoke erupted around the Uzumaki's now-knelt frame no-one in the class was sure what was going on other than the fact he'd used a technique of some kind; however as the wisps of grey were banished upon the air Chouji felt a thrill run through him as he recognised the familiar shape now pointed at the floor as its owner worked the crank and seamlessly slipped a bolt into place. Oh you cunning little…; not for the first time the heir to the noble Akimichi clan was left cursing and muttering under his breath as his much smaller friend somehow came up trumps again and left him wondering why he hadn't thought of such a thing himself first as, now loaded and cocked, the crossbow came up to Naruto's shoulder as the jinchuuriki rested the elbow of the arm supporting the weight of the weapon on his raised knee. There was a strange kind of half-smile on his face, though it was marred by intense concentration as he sighted down the flight of the bolt and set his stance. Glancing over his shoulder with a warlike expression as he heard the few mutters and calls of complaint and cheating swiftly silenced by both the senseis and others who knew what the Uzumaki was like and wanted to see if he could pull this idea off, Chouji turned back in time to see Naruto breathe in, breathe out slowly and, in the second between exhalation and breathing again, tightened his finger on the trigger and let the bolt go.

It was a marvellous shot, at least to someone who didn't know how to use a bow of any description; Naruto on the other hand was just thankful there hadn't been much of a cross-wind as that would have made any kind of accuracy virtually impossible considering the other constraints he was working under. Not for the first time he was grateful for his relatively short stature as, knelt down, he was lower than most of the others in his age group and that had given him more space between the threads to work with. Because of this he was able to zero his aim while forgetting the existence of the threads that would have been cut through by the wider blade of the kunai – these factors, coupled with a bit of nerve and backed up by hours of solitary practice in the comfort of his own apartment block, meant that the crossbow projectile flew straight and true, hammering into the wooden target with a meaty thud and almost breaking the thing in two due to its thinness. Fortunately though the post held firm, letting Naruto breathe again as he casually resealed his crossbow and placed the scroll away in his pocket, though before he could heave himself to his feet a sudden shout burst in his ears,

"Uzumaki what the hell was that?"

"A bloody good shot sensei", Naruto replied after a second of admiring his handiwork; stifling the smattering of giggles behind him with a harsh glare, Aoba tried again,

"You were given a kunai and told to use it".

"No, I was given a kunai and told that was all I was getting Yamashiro-sensei", Naruto corrected him, a slight smile on his face as the chunin inclined his head minutely; they must have been waiting for something like this – just as well really, last time I checked the penalty for disobeying orders was quite a stiff one; "I had something on me that could do the job better and used it".

"So you did – right", the chunin's voice rose as he addressed the remainder of the children left to be tested, "rest of you lot will use the kunai and only the kunai we give you. Uzumaki sit the hell down and be quiet with the rest of them". Though tempted to make a smart comment at this demand the jinchuuriki decided it would be better not to push his luck and simply obeyed, plopping down on the floor and taking the weight off his feet for a moment after tracking back to the rest of his potential class.

So far so good; as far as he could work out he'd achieved at least a passing grade on all three of the tests so far and it must have been getting close to lunch time judging by the position of the sun, so if he was right, that meant that all he had to do now was scrape a pass in the written exam this afternoon, hopefully something his brainstorming earlier in the week would help with. Therefore, as Naruto picked himself up with the rest of them after the last of the tests was concluded and Aoba began to disassemble the web, the jinchuuriki allowed himself to decide that, so far, things appeared to be going rather well.

XXX

"Genius", glancing up from his pot of instant ramen, Naruto met Kiba's eye and couldn't help looking at least a little smug as the Inuzuka applauded slowly, coming closer to where the Uzumaki had taken up residence on one of the eating benches, "that was genius".

"I do my best", the Uzumaki admitted modestly, a free hand dropping down towards the scratching sensation he could feel on his calf and rewarded a moment later as he felt fur under his fingers and heard Akamaru's greeting whine, "still, not like the rest of you didn't manage to impress the sensei either".

"Not like you did though, not even close", the Inuzuka admitted with a shake of his head, slumping down beside his pack-brother and opening his bento, "gotta admit you've got a flair for the dramatic".

"Hey, it all worked didn't it?" Naruto defended his methods before he sensed someone moving behind him and raised a hand in greeting as Chouji walked over, the ever-lethargic Shikamaru hovering around almost in his shadow and gratefully collapsing in his seat as soon as he located it,

"Do I even dare ask what you've got cooked up for this afternoon Naruto", the Akimichi inquired politely, bursting a large bag of crisps for his friends to share, "and if you've got a way to get the answers during the test can you please find a way to slip them my way?" Naruto chuckled,

"No, 'fraid not Chou; I'm going in there same as everyone else and I'm getting that exam done soon as possible then breaking out for the day", catching a glimpse of a very familiar face from the corner of his eye the Uzumaki leant back and swept his hands around him, raising his voice as though imparting a grand oration, "and why wouldn't I? It's a perfect day, the sun is shining and there's beauty everywhere I look…"

"Oi, Naruto-baka!"

"…hence why I'm not looking over there"; fortunately for his health his friends all just about managed to clamp down on their sniggering as Ino and her friend approached their table and unceremoniously shoved Shikamaru closer to his Akimichi friend in order to sit down, virtually squashing the Nara scion to pulp as the Yamanaka glared down the table, a faint suspicion she'd just been had in some way percolating through her mind as Naruto went on, "hey Ino-chan, you did okay during those runs today didn't you? You as well Sakura-chan", the girl who had followed the forthright Yamanaka to the table managed a tepid smile before Ino snorted and shook her head, the movement making both her bang and ponytail sway,

"Yeah right, compared to you and Sasuke? None of the rest of us came even close".

"And I didn't come close to Sasuke"; she must mean the Uchiha; Naruto had heard of the supposed last member of the once-populous Uchiha clan but had never actually met him, though if that was the boy in question he was certainly speedy enough to have the makings of a good shinobi, "he blitzed that assault course and left the rest of us for dead".

"Just like you did after you pulled that stunt in the first test", Kiba snickered, remembering the expressions that had flooded onto their sensei's face firstly as Naruto made his move and secondly as the realisation of what he'd done crashed over her, "I've never seen you move so fast".

"You've obviously never seen me at work then Kiba-kun; it's an unusual night where I don't have at least one woman chasing after me", his eyes darted down the table knowingly, "or at least one skinny little rake masquerading as a woman, so you soon learn how to high-tail it into the sunset and leave them in the dust. Mau, Ino-chan", he cast a despairing glance down the table as a chopstick bounced off his shoulder, thrown there by the irked Yamanaka who was all too depressingly familiar with his comments about her weight or lack thereof, "so tsundere".

"And what's that supposed to mean baka?" She shot back, snapping open a spare pair of chopsticks with a good deal more force than was strictly necessary, "Not like I need another reason for kicking your ass in front of the whole school come Friday but humour me anyway".

"Ask your parents Ino-chan but trust me it's not an insult"; at least, I don't think it is – that book I read about it in wasn't exactly a dictionary and I haven't had a chance to look it up since I got my latest joke book; "anyway, nervous about the written?"

"Huh, no chance; I'm sitting next to Sakura-chan, and stop trying to hide away over there 'wallflower'", the uncomfortable name broke through Sakura's shyness around new people, a remnant of her former bad experiences following people picking on the size of her admittedly slightly larger than average forehead, "you know you're a walking textbook half the time".

"No need to point it out buta", the other girl shot back in a spiky tone, holding her glare for an instant before the two of them seemed to simultaneously call a truce and focussed their attention further up the table, "still, I need a good written to scrape in after those tests this morning – how did the rest of you deal with all that running?"

There was a sudden swapping of glances across the wood before, by unspoken consent, Kiba was elected as spokesman simply because out of all the boys present he was by far and away the most physically active one simply due to his clan,

"Practice; I've been up and walking dogs, mucking out kennels and dealing with the rest of the clan since I could walk", the Inuzuka shrugged before polishing off the rest of his bento and elaborating, "one of those things you just grow up with, though don't panic, you'll soon pick it up here if what Hana-chan told me was anything to go by". Sakura nodded at this, though she still looked a little unsure – seeing this, Naruto chipped in his two ryo,

"Besides, not like they're expecting up to simply fly over these courses or ace the exam", he put in conversationally, shrugging as the attention centred on him for a moment, "as long as the senseis see you putting the effort and carrying on no matter how much it hurts or if you feel like shrivelling up and dying you'll do okay. I didn't see you passing out or anything through those courses and you got through them all, more than I can say for some people".

That seemed to be about the right thing to say – certainly Sakura herself perked up and Naruto felt he earned a mental pat on the back before she seemed to remember exactly who she was looking at and her brow furrowed a little,

"But, sorry if this is going to sound stupid", she apologised simply because she was smart enough to know that even here she was out of her depth somewhat; all the children surrounding her were the children of ninja aside from Naruto, and if rumour and what she'd heard from Ino was right he was arguably the most experienced of them all in terms of how ninja operated, "but, how did you get away with what you did?"

"How do you mean?" Whew; she tried her hardest to keep the gratitude off her face as she realised she hadn't immediately been shot down as she'd expected,

"Well, what you did, especially in the first and third test; wasn't that, sort of", she tried to think of a different word but even her large brain ran dry and she was forced to go with her first, most obvious choice, "cheating?"

She knew the second the word left her mouth that she'd said the wrong thing and wanted nothing more than to disappear on the spot; virtually everyone was looking at her sidelong at best or outright staring at worst, even Ino-chan. Blush redoubling as she looked away and squeezed her eyes shut, Sakura once more wished she could suddenly just turn invisible and run away after putting her foot in her mouth like she just had though, before she could act on her desire to rabbit she heard Naruto answer and, to her relief, there was none of the surprise in his words that she'd seen in his face,

"Tell you what Sakura-chan, think about it like this – forget about how I did it, did I or did I not complete the tasks the sensei set for us?"

"Well, yes but…"

"That's it then", Naruto concluded as though he'd won an unassailable point, "I did the job I was told to do and that's all that matters". Sakura tried to follow this convoluted line of thinking and, failing miserably, was about to ask for further clarification before a second, much sleepier voice broke in on the conversation to provide a guide for him,

"What Naruto is trying to say, badly", Shikamaru said, favouring the jinchuuriki with a half-lidded stare before carrying on, "is that as a ninja we will be expected to complete the missions entrusted to us by any means necessary. Because of this obligation there is nothing that we're not allowed to do as long as it justifies completing the mission; in short, it is impossible for a ninja to cheat – what Naruto did was unorthodox but, because it worked, I doubt the invigilators would be able to mark him down at all – if an idea is stupid but it works, it wasn't a stupid idea".

There was a slight pause at this statement, everyone seemingly ruminating on the Nara's pearl of wisdom before, with a deep chuckle, Chouji glanced over and down at his long-time friend with a smirk,

"That's probably the most I've ever heard you say in one time Shika; I'd watch out Sakura-chan", the girl in question wilted slightly under the much larger boys' friendly smile but apart from that stood her ground even if his next words filled her with horror, "I think he likes you". Shikamaru shot him a sharp sidelong glance before settling down in his seat and closing his eyes,

"She looks like she'd be an interesting shougi opponent; now everyone sit down and be quiet – there's fifteen minutes until the end of lunch and I want to enjoy a nap in peace". The sudden reminder struck the rest of them suddenly and they all quickly finished their meals and exchanged a few more minutes' conversation before trooping over to the main door of the Academy and being ushered inside to the largest hall of the shinobi training establishment.

As he was accompanied to his seat by a chunin he didn't recognise and took his place, Naruto felt a little worm of guilt suddenly thrash around in his stomach as he made out a larger silhouette about three ranks down and two columns to his right. It wasn't like he'd actually lied to Chouji outright; he didn't have any way to get the answers during the test itself; but at the same time, could he have slipped his friends a few titbits about what he was almost certain was coming? I could have, but wouldn't that have looked a little suspicious – I mean; mulling the situation over in his head as he watched Aoba write the current time on a blackboard at the front of the room with a large piece of chalk, he felt a little more confident in his actions; we all write the same things down, they'll immediately smell a rat. And, if I'm wrong, though I don't think I am; having flipped the question paper at the command to start and only just holding in a hiss of triumph as he recognised the first question that stared up at him from the crisp white page, Naruto gave a slow smile and picked up his pen; at least it's just my neck on the chopping block and not anyone elses'.

Confidence growing and guilt assuaged by his logical reasoning, Naruto spent the next two and some hours reciting the answers he'd memorised to the question sin front of him, though there was of course the odd infuriating blank in his mind that he had to knuckle down and study a little more seriously. Still he was reasonably confident that he'd done okay as he held up his hand with ten minutes to go, finished and seeing no point in just sitting in that room surrounded by a sea of scribbling pencils; as he sat on a small swing on one corner of the Academy playground waiting for his friends to finish, Naruto did his best to ignore the nerves that were now grating in him – for better or for worse, there was no way of him finding out if he'd done enough until the fateful letter dropped through his apartment door some time this evening.

XXX

The atmosphere had been slowly curdling all evening and, at the sight of the two who entered the premises and slowly sauntered their way through the bar it almost outright solidified; almost every pair of eyes was focussed on the duo but they seemed inured to the pressure, saying nothing as the placed and order and then waited for the drinks to arrive. It was a test of endurance, the wait for the fatal crack to happen and, just as the first measure was sipped into, the might of the many finally overcame the resistance of the few,

"You can all stop looking so worried, the little bugger's in".

There was an almost-universal sigh of relief, punctuated by a rousing cheer from some corners of the room and, recognising some of those who'd sent it up, Aoba led his companion towards their table, elbowing Raido aside a little as he set up chairs for the pair of them. Uzashi flumped down and stretched off her legs gratefully, rolling her neck and massaging her eyes as she did her best to edit the last four hours of her life from her mind; if I never see another paper test in my life it'll be too damned soon – how do the Academy staff do that every day, more to the point how am I going to cope with it every day?;

"So then, you survived the Mouses' assault on the Academy?"

"Oh yeah", Aoba chuckled before flicking a glance to the side of him, noticing Uzashi raise the palm of the hand over her eyes to glare at him, "some in better shape than others but we all just about pulled through". The covering hand flipped into a rude gesture as the rest of the Awesome Foursome broke off into chuckles (or coughs in Hayate's case) and Genma simply had to be the one to ask,

"Don't hold out on us; how'd he do?"

"In like a shuriken, right at the tip", Aoba went on after taking a deep draught of his beverage, "set two records in the morning for the physicals and was joint, fourth, maybe, of all time for the afternoon?"

"Fifth", Uzashi corrected him after Aoba took a stab in the dark and then looked to her for confirmation, virtually the entire bar listening in to their loud conversation, "Kami alone knows how he did it though, least of all with some of his answers. This one was a real classic – 'name three animals that, in proportion of height to bodyweight, jump higher than a house?' Normal kids come out with the usual suspects; you know, flea, spring-tail, Jiraiya-hentai after Tsunade-sama's caught him peeping again", there was a smattering of polite chuckles at this before Uzashi moved in with the real killing joke, "Uzumaki Naruto answer – 'any animal, the house can't jump!"

This time there was laughter around the bar as several of the shinobi took the joke at face value, though, as had happened in the invigilating hall, the mirth quickly gave way to introspection and, eventually, someone had to be the one who made the obvious statement,

"Umm, isn't he right though?"

"That was the decision of the kocho as well", Aoba confirmed, remembering the jounin's face as he recalled the older man ruminating over the question and answer for some time before eventually giving the jinchuuriki's paper yet another tick, "according to him the question was badly-worded and because of that they had no way of marking him wrong – he's already cocooned in his office checking the papers and assignments for the rest of Uzumaki's year don't have other loopholes he can wriggle through".

"Heh, he could look from now until the deer come home, Naruto will find a way", a caustic comment cut in from the bar, Nara Dashi finishing his latest saucer of sake with a deep swallow as he recalled the first time he'd met the Uzumaki in person, right after his clan head had pulled the then-six-year old would-be do-gooder in through the window he'd been trying to shut from the outside in a gale, "true maelstrom he is – nothing is ever the same after he's passed over it for a while. Even if the changes are subtle they're still and will likely always be there".

"Here, here", Raido agreed with the older Nara before turning his attention back on his friend, "so then, he set the pages alight, how badly did he rip up the training grounds?"

"Not as badly as I was fearing it must be said, though"; I'm sorry Uzashi-chan; he'd promised himself he would try to keep what had happened on the training grounds on the training grounds but, with all three of his childhood friends looking in, he just couldn't help himself, "with a bit of luck the seeds of a future teacher-student relationship have been sown".

You bastard; as the weight of sudden anticipation and expectation all but landed on her with a thud the flaxen-haired chunin squeezed her eyes shut for a second and did her best to prevent the mottling of her face before taking a breath and attempting to clear her name before the inevitable rumours started,

"First test had them up the tree", she began, luckily cutting off the first of the questions as they began, "we had the cloths, you know how that one goes? Well I had one; I show them what they're after and then stick the thing in my pocket, don't give it any more thought than that – so the Uchiha's gone and set a decent time and I get the little brat into place; he looks like he's about to give me some back-chat before he clams up and then starts shrieking that Sasuke's about to break his neck on his way down the tree. I didn't even think, I just span around, got a good look at the Uchiha looking fit as normal and the little sod picked my pocket when my back was turned!"

"Her back pocket", Aoba elaborated immediately, ignoring the dig in the ribs, "got himself a little feel-up as well before he set off and broke the record for that challenge". There were a variety of laughs, whistles and saucy comments at the story before Genma, just about managing to control himself, shook his head and polished off the dregs of his latest order before speaking again,

"Hah, and what a wonderful little monster we've all created between us; don't take it too hard Uzashi-san", just before the slightly shorter woman could tear a stripe off him for his unmeant innuendo he hastily explained himself, "they don't call him Uzumaki 'Mitarashi-Anko-is-my-favourite-uke' Naruto for nothing". The female chunin's eyes almost exploded out of their sockets,

"He actually said that? And lived after Anko-chan found out about it?!"

"Apparently so, it was a few years back now; if you catch her in the right mood and survive the beating after asking Anko-chan might almost admit to it now", the senbon spun between Genma's lips as he smiled and spoke again after glancing Uzashi up and down, "still, who can blame him for wanting to get his hands on such a fine example of womanhood as yourself Uzashi-kun? There's not a red-blooded man where who wouldn't have sacrificed a hand to be where Naruto was at that moment; well, no man apart from old paper-lungs over there", Hayate for his part replied with a cough and an insulting gesture that Genma immediately shrugged off, " and only then because Yugao-chan would cut it off for him if he dared".

The reminder of her one-time team mate and friend was enough to simultaneously make Uzashi snicker and silently sigh; she was happy the older kunoichi was attached to someone but, at the same time, a trifle jealous that she hadn't bumped into the right person yet. Still, there was always time while at the Academy and anyway, this was hardly a time to be concerned with such things when there was gossip to be had at the moment, especially as the woman in question wasn't around at present,

"Speaking of which where is Yugao-chan today?"

"Out with her other boyfriend"; such a remark, and especially the off-hand manner it was delivered in, caused Uzashi to skip a beat somewhat before Hayate stepped into rescue the situation after scything Raido down with a venomous look,

"No she is not; she took up a hobby a while back that she's always wanted to do and, anyway, that's on Wednesdays; she on perimeter patrol tonight".

"I see", Uzashi muttered before her curiosity got the better of her, "dare I ask what this hobby is and how this mysterious second man factors into it?"

"She goes dancing", Hayate admitted after a moment's pause and a slight cough, "something that I can't do very well due to a combination of two bad lungs and two left feet. It's taught by a civilian, can't remember his name, but while she was there she was, ah, well I can't say propositioned because that's not...that'll work – she was invited out for a drink by one of the people who turned into a semi-regular there". That made Uzashi's eyebrows rise,

"He was brave; what rank?"

"Civilian", Hayate confirmed, Uzashi nodding as she realised why the man had been so brazen as to make a move on someone everyone in the ninja cadre knew was accounted for – ninja relationships were often held away from the public gaze to prevent gossip reaching the wrong ears, "he was polite enough when she turned him down though, no bad blood or anything like that. I've met him once or twice, seemed like a decent enough guy, certainly no-one who'd faze Yugao-chan if he ever did get uppity".

"There are very few who would faze her, least of all if she had a blade in hand", Genma assured him before accepting a drink from Raido, it having been his round and the queue at the bar quite long, "so then, back to the matter of the Mouse; he broke one record by, uh, under-the-belt-handed means", he hastily ducked a slap from Uzashi and grinned broadly in the face of her ire before carrying on unruffled, "what was the other?"

"The web", Aoba filled him in, "nothing exciting there, just shot through it with his crossbow, the wires weren't tight enough to stop a bolt going through". Raido, the most knowledgeable of the four in terms of projectile weapons, gave an appreciative whistle,

"Damn, must have been a fair shot if you were on the thin pole".

"Hit it clean, I'll give him that much", Uzashi said plainly, "though he was about only twenty-five, thirty feet away at most, the web wasn't that wide. Still, wonder how he got that good with a crossbow". There was a shuffle from a neighbouring table and a blonde head popped up, the Yamanaka who'd overheard her question speaking up with an answer,

"I'll tell you that one; you know he lives alone in his apartment block? Well he put it to good use as a training range; from what I heard off Ninota-chan he sticks a post-it note at one end of the main hallway on the upper floors, stands the other side and aims for it, and when he's not doing that he's practicing on the grounds or with the weapon-smith he's friendly with, Hasa-something or other. I'll agree with you though, he's a fair shot; I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of him if he had time to get into position put it that way". There was a general grunt of assent to this point and Uzashi nodded, mollified, before speaking her mind once again,

"Well, either way, I'm sure he can think of something constructive to do with it come next week; as it is he's in, everyone on the staff sees him tomorrow when the new class show up and get the big speech from the kocho, then we all get the last two days of peace we're likely to see until either our deployment finishes, he graduates or we all go insane prior to the big throw down at the end of the week. Who's showing up for that just out of interest?"

As she'd expected there was a near-unanimous show of hands and she wasn't surprised; though the Academy didn't begin live-sparring until the start of the second year, there was one exception to that rule and that, ironically enough, was on the first day of Academy for the new class. Basically a 'welcome to school' kind of celebration for ninja, the names of every student were put into a big hat and lots drawn randomly, the whole school fighting each other in one-on-one tournaments until eventually there was only one left standing, kind of a less bloody initiation ritual than the one used by Kiri as a graduation exam. Officially it was to allow the new students both to gauge their own skills and show them how much they needed to do to pass out; unofficially it showed the new year group exactly where they stood in the pecking orders and punctured any, or at least most, big heads before they could properly inflate. Every shinobi had a story from their first day and, remembering his, Genma once more bit down on a scowl,

"Don't see why I go to be honest; it wasn't my fault I was running late – my bag split open and everything fell out, what was I supposed to do, leave it there?"

"Hey you knew the five-minute rule Gen-kun", Raido pointed out smoothly, recalling the old school rule that meant if any student wasn't at a lesson five minutes after it began it was counted as an automatic failed lesson for that student or, in the case of a spar, a bye for the opponent, "speaking of which, if that still enforced in the present day?" Aoba grinned,

"Oh yeah, with an iron fist", he informed his friend, recalling with a wince just how much of an issue the current leader of the Academy made of punctuality; probably just as well he's never been introduced to Hatake Kakashi – I think he'd have either killed the man or died trying by the end of the first time they'd had to work together; "still, all that aside, betting pool for Friday, who are the main players and who's in...?"

XXX

Once more glancing at the form opposite her, the matriarch of the clan flicked a glance towards her husband and, seeing his approval, made to pierce the uncharacteristic cloud of melancholy that seemed to have gathered over her daughter's head,

"Ino-chan", the young Yamanaka looked up from where she had been prodding her congealing soup with her chopsticks and spoon at her name, allowing Kunisa to go on unimpeded, "something the matter? We half-expected you to be bouncing around the house after you got your results through – what's got you down?"

"Nothing kaa-san; well, okay", that was never going to wash for a second and she knew it, "it's just, well, Naruto-baka"; yes; not for the first time Kunisa heard the smaller blondes' name leave her daughters' lips and, also not for the first time, she hid a smile; he seems to be the root of all evil in your little world doesn't he Ino-chan?; "he called me something during our lunch break today and I just can't get it out of my head".

"Much as I hope it wasn't anything too nasty", Inoichi put in from his position around the table as he poured his wife a second glass of cold water, "you'll have to learn to ignore taunts and other things from your friends and especially your enemies both in the Academy and beyond". Contrary to the elder mind-walkers' expectations, however, rather than swelling up in indignity, his daughter merely sighed,

"I know daddy but, well, it wasn't an insult, or at least I don't think it was, and neither did he come to think of it, I've just never heard the word before and can't find out what it means, it's driving me crazy, just like him! Okay, might as well come clean", mind apparently made up, Ino faced her parents down and asked the question as frankly as she could,

"Do either of you know who or what a tsundere is supposed to be?"

Ino had a feeling that honesty in this case might not have been the best policy as she watched her parents share a glance and then hide a smile in her mothers' case and half-collapse onto the table holding his stomach in her fathers'. She was half-tempted to leave the table at that point before things got any worse but, even as she was turning to leave, Inoichis' half-choked voice stopped her,

"No, no Ino-chahahan", he managed with difficulty before controlling himself, "it's not a bad thing, or an insult, in fact in some ways it is true what he says".

"So", Ino chose both her next words and their tone carefully, "what is it then?"

"Tsundere is, well it's usually a term used in fiction, especially comics; now I know you haven't read many of them", he stifled her forthcoming comment before she could phrase it and, uninterrupted, carried on, "but you should get the idea. Remember in stories there were always some people who started out either not liking or being cold to the main character without being enemies as such? Like, ah, like Prince Arahala, from the Princess Gale films you like; remember he started off calling Princess Gale hopeless and living for nothing more than a dream?"

"Yeah, but then she and her friends helped saved his kingdom and he gave them the key they needed to open the gate to the niji no michi", even though it had been a few years since she'd seen that particular instalment in the Princess Gale sage the series was still one of Ino's favourites and she could recite almost all of them by heart, "but, what's that got to do with...?"

"In that case, Prince Arahala was what some people might call a tsundere character", Kunisa explained, sliding into the conversation as smoothly as glass, "it usually means someone who starts off cold and aloof and then gradually softens up towards someone else over time. In that regard, it does sound a lot like you and Nar..."

"Naruto", Ino finished for her, gaze suddenly unfocussed for a minute before the vision returned to her eyes in a sudden hellish blaze of concentrated cold green fire, "he's saying I've gone soft? Uzumaki Naruto-baka thinks I'm going soft on him?!"

"Well, considering how you started out threatening to throw him out your bedroom window and now seem to settle for trying to beat him to pulp every time he drops in, I have to say he's got as bit of a po..."

Whatever other responses her parents may have had to either correct or reinforce Ino's slightly wayward conclusions were simply lost in the typhoon of her sudden rage; without even thinking about decorum the youngest Yamanaka leapt down from the table and punched one first into her open hand, ire so obvious in her voice and posture it was amazing it wasn't striking sparks off the walls,

"I'll show him how bloody soft I've gotten; just you wait until Friday you, you...where's Ninota-chan, she's always looking for a chance to get the Mouse, she'd love to train me to kick his tail in front of the whole village..." With these half-formed plans and schemes being muttered in boiling streams under her breath, Ino stalked away and left her parent in peace at the dining table. Both Inoichi and his wife watched her go and then sat in silence for a moment before Kunisa did a curious thing; she reached forwards with her arm, a single finger extended, before curling the finger around and pulling her arm back, all done in silence and with a smile on her face. Inoichi merely snorted with quiet mirth and nodded as his other halfs' actions,

"I know hime; that boy's got hooks in her I doubt he even knows he has", the patriarch of the clan admitted, "though I doubt he'll act on them for a good number of years, he's too young – just as well or I think I'd be second in the line to, ah, dissuade him from attempting to sow wild oats at a young age, least of all with my little girl".

"I see – who'd be first in that queue?"

"Hiashi"; recalling what she knew of the Hyuuga head and how protective he was of his two daughters, Kunisa nodded,

"That I can understand – he really does have a certain charm about him does Naruto-kun, even if I doubt he realises it". Inoichi, despite himself, chuckled,

"Not sure charm's what I'd call it but you're right as always dear – anyone who can slither out a hiding after making Nara Yoshino worried about them has got to have some kind of Kami watching over them", he rode the punch to his shoulder with expert ease, Kunisa being quite friendly with Shikaku's wife, and carried on, "I heard on the grapevine he was in at the Academy; just as well or Hokage-sama would probably have led a witch-hunt trying to find out why he wasn't and I'd have been late home after lending a hand; and something in my waters tells me he's going to go far both while he's there and when he gets out. And if he can help drag his friends, Ino-chan amongst them even though she's too tsundere to admit it", Kunisa couldn't quite hold back a snigger at the term despite her reproachful look at her husbands' grin, "along on his rise, well as far as I can see so much the better".

"Assuming our little Ino-chan doesn't try to throttle him in his sleep if they ever get paired together for survival exercises", Kunisa pointed out with a second slight laugh, "something tells me Ninota-chan's going to have a long night ahead of her considering how fired up our little girl is – if their names come out the hat tomorrow I'd be worried for Naruto-kun's sake". Inoichi merely chuckled and shook his head, wrapping an arm around Kunisa and drawing her in close, entranced as always by the smell of her hair and the feel of her temple on his cheek as she leant into his hug,

"So would I hime, so would I – now, are you feeling brave enough to tell our baby psychopath that by doing what she's doing she's just walked into another trap and all but confirmed Naruto's conclusions about her?"

"Absolutely not right now; give Ninota-chan a few hours to exercise the stress out of her and then we might have enough time for a little chat before bed..."

Ino was as good as her word the following morning; she had her eyes open and the knives out for Naruto and made sure he knew it, barging past him on the way into the Academy itself and pointedly standing away from him in the assembly hall as they were addressed by the jounin captain who ran the Academy and listened to both the speech he gave and the rules he laid out that they would be expected to follow throughout their careers as students of the shinobi arts. She kept flashing him pointed glances throughout the speech though, hoping she made her disgust plain enough through her eyes though he didn't seem to notice, in fact he looked rather bored throughout the whole thing and kept yawning; huh, bet he stayed up late to celebrate – baka. He did perk up at one point however, though why that was Ino had no idea as it was at the start of the list of rules Tiruzo-sensei was reeling off and when she looked again he was smothering a yawn with the back of his hand, though for some reason she thought she could still see a vague hint of deeper thought within his still-alert eyes. However he vanished from the training ground before she could corner him and make both her curiosity at any plans he might have had and her displeasure at his earlier insinuations plain but, as far as she was concerned as she went back to her home for a day of helping out in the flower shop, honour was about even between them.

It was perhaps then fortunate that Ino had not yet progressed far enough in her clan techniques to enter or read minds without physical contact for, if she had, there would have been a chance that the plan Naruto had come up with following hearing the rules he was constrained by for the rest of his Academy days could have been strangled in the cradle, rather than allowed to grow and burst forth into a terrible, and terribly embarrassing, reality for the entire Academy.

XXX

The ritual was sacrosanct and almost perfect; she paid for her meal at the till, waited no longer than three minutes for her order, picked up a skewer, dipped and rolled the dumpling in the sweet, sweet sauce to allow it soak and then, without pre-amble, tore into it with her teeth, the succulent morsel devoured without mercy or further thought as she made to repeat the process and paused only to throw the now-empty skewer at a familiar shape lurking with intent at the edge of the door of the dango shack,

"Whatever it is you're after the answer is no".

That, Mitarashi Anko knew with depressing certainty, was never going to be enough to dissuade him in a million years and therefore she simply resigned herself to a lost lunch-break and sought to bottle up her temper as best she could as her some-time student sauntered onto what she considered her holy ground and pulled up a chair for himself, smiling at her across the table,

"Maa, no need to be nasty Anko-san", he knew better than to call her sensei unless she was actually teaching him something; one impromptu flexibility test when he'd slipped up following seeing her in the street after her first Sandaime-instigated stint as his sensei-stroke-friend had been enough to ensure that was a lesson he never forgot, "just wanted to catch up with an old, tea-ceremony attendee", he finished, smirking slightly as Anko stood down having expected him to say the forbidden f-word and wrong-footed due to his last-minute swerve out the way of that shuriken,

"Gaki the day you can catch up with me is the day I either turn in my head-band or start spinning in my grave", the kunoichi cut back caustically, eating another skewer, "look, don't jerk me around Naruto, I've not got time – tell me what you want so I can say no and then get out of here".

"What I want? Well, that's easy at least", he leant across the table slightly, lowering his voice, "I want your help Anko-san".

"And, assuming I go along with whatever stupid stunt you've dreamed up this time, what's in it for me apart from a chance to point and laugh when it all comes crashing down around your ears?" Well, that's better than I expected; not one to look a gift horse, or even a gift snake, in the mouth, the jinchuuriki moved on to the second part of his potential sales pitch,

"Kudos, the chance of a fairly substantial cut in any profits made and the satisfaction of helping another Konoha part-time ninja, in my case, carry out his mission". Anko seemed to weigh this up for a moment, not breaking eye contact and inwardly a little impressed that she could only read three or four tells from Naruto's face and body language when she'd be looking for half-a-dozen at least from someone his age, before cautiously carrying on,

"Keep talking, and how much money are we potentially looking at here?"

"As much as you're comfortable with risking, and quite likely a good deal more than that"; something to do with gambling then, but what...?; he carried on even before she could complete the question, leaning forwards over the table and dropping his voice conspiratorially, "you know I want to be Hokage someday Anko-san, hell you were there when I first starting making such a dream known to Konoha at large, but to do that I've got to surpass all those that have come before me. What I'm after is a chance to do just that and with a few, ah, items I might need you to procure for me, I'll be able to do just that".

"How?" His smile simultaneously widened and deepened enough to skim the surface of malice at that point, an expression both dangerous and enticing to an interrogation expert such as the Snake Mistress of the Leaf and almost despite herself Anko leaned in slightly,

"Tell me Anko-san, what's one thing none of the previous Hokages, or in fact anyone else for that matter, have managed to do in history; not the White Fang, not the Professor, not even the Yellow Flash managed to blot the history books with the mark I'm planning. I won't say any more here; even the walls might have ears; you wanna hear more, find us a safe spot to talk in and I'll hopefully get you a well-deserved pay-off and a chance to boost your sensei credentials".

Just about mastering the urge to stand up and tell the Uzumaki in no uncertain terms exactly what the last time her teaching credentials coming to light had led to for her Anko stood up, nodded once and beckoned Naruto to follow her; once outside the dango house she stretched off, caught him by the back of his collar with the swiftness of a striking tree snake and a seal-less shunshin landed them both in her apartment. For the remaining twenty minutes of her allotted time away from work she listened to, laughed and helped refine the faintly ludicrous idea fired at her by the shorter would-be shinobi before, with five minutes to go, she unceremoniously booted her now-partner onto the street and watched him scurry away into the distance before giving a brief chuckle and heading off back to the interrogation centre of the ANBU headquarters.

So then, this could be very interesting; fingering a key in her trench coat pocket, the apprentice interrogator smirked as she decided exactly which of the myriad potential substances would be the best to abuse to achieve both Naruto's historic achievements and her bumper pay-off; have to give the little bugger credit, nice idea and if he can pull it off it'll go down in the record books about as fast as Uzashi's face fell after he copped a handful of her ass. If not, at least I don't lose anything and it'll still go down in the record books, even if I have to be there with a camera to make sure of that fact!

XXX

Considering the somewhat-haphazard nature of their first meeting Uzashi had been understandably somewhat apprehensive when she drew the sizzling exploding tag; the faces of her fellow sensei's had been locked somewhere between sympathetic and gleeful when they'd all been handed their class lists and her eyes had been dragged to the name that all but leapt off the page at her. The Uzumaki was in her class, the same little brat who'd all but obliterated her self-esteem four days ago was going to be sharing a classroom with her for the next year or so; still, much as she felt like going on bended knee to Tizuro-taicho and begging for reassignment she knew it would be both a wasted effort and a black blot on her fledgling Academy career, not something she needed before the first bell on the first day had even started.

Over the course of the morning however, those first-time jitters had gradually given away and allowed her to find her confidence; the Uzumaki appeared to be just the same as any other child enjoying his first day at the shinobi Academy he'd sweated and all but shed blood to get into and hadn't raised anything like the hell she'd been afraid of. In fact he'd even arrived at the Academy very early and had to be let in by the shinobi on keys for the building, seemingly determined to make a good impression and to that end merely sitting politely and paying attention to her morning lessons like everyone else even if, just like them, his attention was elsewhere at the time. Uzashi wasn't so hard-hearted as to not understand this; hell, during her time at the Academy she doubted she could even remember her first morning through the thunder and battle that had marked the afternoon; and because of that she and her contemporaries kept the morning lessons light – no point teaching things that would likely fly straight out of their students' heads at the first sound of combat. It had all gone rather well she'd though, right up until an hour after lunch when a single arm wrapped in bright orange material rose into the air and the whiskered face it belonged to gave a chagrined, if slightly painful, grimace,

"Sorry sensei", Naruto began apologetically after Uzashi had given him the nod to speak, "I really, really gotta go".

"Can't you wait…?"

"Uh, not really sensei", the jinchuuriki said haltingly, hunched up over his desk, "that last cup of ramen just went right through me and I really don't want to be late to this fight. I'll meet the rest of the class out there I swear, just let me outta here before I flood the classroom!"

"Don't be disgusting", Uzashi told him, hiding her amusement at the sight of the suffering of the boy who'd embarrassed her earlier in the week and dragging it out a little longer, "and remember, all of you, that preparedness if nine-tenths of a missions' work – if your compatriot here were on duty he could well compromise his position by answering the call of nature. For now though, get out of here Uzumaki", he didn't hesitate, gone from his desk in a streak of orange and a mutter of thanks as he pelted for the door, "and don't be late out there!"

Lateness was the very last thing on the Uzumaki's mind and, as he came out of the nearest water closet after washing his hands, he saw a gilt-edged opportunity to have a legitimate reason to be where he wanted to be and seized it without a second thought; as he had his arms full at the time, Aoba was forced to look over his shoulder at the sudden voice from behind him,

"Need a hand taking a load of Yamashiro-sensei?"

"Naruto? Why aren't you with the rest of your class?"

"Ah, a combination of nerves and very dilute cup ramen", the blonde child discreetly side-stepped the issue before moving onto his next point, "told Uzashi-sensei I'd see the rest of the class out there, they'll be about a minute behind us at most and to be honest it seems your need is greater than any of theirs". Fair point, and truth be told I could use an extra pair of hands; as he'd been put in charge of one of the third year classes Aoba had been able to leave them to their own devices for ten minutes or so while he carted all the equipment needed for the Friday all-Academy tournament outside and began to set it all up; though I didn't realise there was quite so much of it – I wondered why most of the staffroom was giving me an odd look when I stuck my hand up for this job;

"Fair enough Naruto-san, grab a few of these poles", without further ado the Uzumaki eased an armful of the four-foot sticks into his arms, the brightly-coloured wooden poles used to demarcate the limits of the rings used for early stages of the battle, "and let's get outside, I'm running slightly late as it is".

"No need to tell me twice sensei"; you're not the only one; acutely aware of the time and realising his margin for error was shrinking all the time, Naruto toddled off towards the main door of the Academy, though before Aoba could question his slight limp he cleared up the mystery himself, "think I picked up a pebble in my sandal though – I'll deal with it outside".

"Don't take too long".

"No fear of that", Naruto tossed the comment back over his shoulder as he hobbled towards the sunlight and fresh air, moving to the side to let the teacher past and carefully lowering his armful of wood to the floor as he did so to slide a free finger between his foot and the interior of his footwear, "ahh, there it is, glad to see the back of that – be right with you sensei", he called as Aoba's back retreated from him, though thankfully the taller man didn't glance backwards as Naruto casually knocked the main door shut behind them. This was at the same time a blessing and a curse due to the events of the next few minutes as, if he had thought to look behind him, he might well have called into question the suddenly-evil expression on the small blondes' face, not to mention his reasons behind sliding one of the marker poles between the handles of the Academy door, effectively cutting off the main route of access for the entirety of the remaining Academy population and sealing four years of future Konoha shinobi within a man-made tomb.

As it was, however, overburdened by the weight in his arms and trying to remember what to do with it all, Aoba was content enough to trust his hearing to let him know that the Uzumaki had caught up in a rush and remained blissfully unaware of the danger he had placed both his students and his peers in with his one single moment of inattention.

XXX

Checking his watch again, Chouza shifted in his seat a little and offered a last question before the games truly began,

"So then Shika-kun", the jounin commander of the village glanced across at his friend, "who's the smart money going on this year".

"I don't gamble"; Yoshino-chan won't let me, though truth be told it was either that or the sake when we were married and I don't think I'd have survived as long as I have with her without alcohol; though truth be told the Nara leader knew he'd had too many bad habits in his youth and was grateful to his wife for forcing him onto and keeping him on the straight and narrow, there were a few times where he chafed under such oppression, not that Yoshino would ever find out about them, "and it looks to be a even field this year; there's no-one who truly stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd".

"Just as well, gets boring if there's a Kushina every year", Tsume admitted, remembering that last fact with a pang of annoyance as memories of the red typhoon scattering all before her during the Uzumaki's last year in the Academy replayed before her mind, "a few people laughed when she told us all her dream, they were laughing across the other side of their faces when she was through with them that day". Shifting slightly in his seat following the reminder, Inoichi nodded,

"Very true, mean left hook she had; still though, there's be a fair bit of interest in this one, most open field we've had in several years, hence why the old paymaster over there's got an escort with him".

Following the Yamanakas' finger Tsume just about managed to suppress a simultaneous shudder and wince; by dint of both long tradition and the urge of ninja everywhere to have a bit of a harmless flutter on what was essentially a bloodless battle, a gambling detail had been in existence almost as long as the Academy first-fight tradition and had evolved into a prescribed ritual that was followed to the present day. To ensure the validity of the results and check that no unusual betting patterns were emerging in an attempt to cheat fellow ninja, a single chunin who had no stake in the fight, so had no family members fighting and placed no bets on any of the results, was chosen to actually oversee the contests and, to help with this duty and prevent attempted intimidation or other attempts to skew the results, he was accompanied to the Academy by a team of other chunin, special or full jounin with nothing else to do that day. In this case there was a chunin Tsume didn't know who'd drawn the blunt knife and been selected to monitor the contest and was now most likely regretting such luck more than most – not only could he not place a stake on the result, he was also being borderline molested by a particular kunoichi who the entire ninja cadre knew very well indeed,

"Poor guy", the Inuzuka muttered, watching as Mitarashi Anko lounged all over the slightly smaller junior ninja, no doubt whispering lewd suggestions into his ear if the rising blush on his face was anything to go by, "still, even she'll have to behave when it all kicks off, least of all if she's got money in it". Seeing a definite flash of currency pass between the two even if it was disguised by Anko licking the ear of her next victim sensually, Inoichi sighed and shook his head at the wild child of the T&I department,

"Kami bless our dear little Anko-chan; sometimes I think the old monkey only sent her to us because he was terrified what might happen if she was allowed into the village as a whole", he admitted, sending a pointed glare towards the back of the ornate hat that was in their vision a few rows down, the honourable Hokage as always afforded the best view of the action due to his privileged position, "still, been a boon for us nevertheless, she's damn good at what she does". Tsume chuckled,

"What, traumatising the chunin force? Heh, she should have come to me, I'd have given her a few tips".

"Traumatising Puppy-chan, not blunt-force trauma; there is a subtle difference", cut down in her prime the Inuzuka glowered at the man who'd knocked her off-stride, though as always Shikaku seemed oblivious to her ire, "still, with any luck we won't see too much of the latter down there today. Ah, seems their about to get started", along with the rest of their row Tsume had seen the chunin instructor approaching the sparring ground before noticing the much brighter figure at the side and slightly behind him and smiling as she recognised her unofficial third-son figure, "though why does Aoba-san have Nar…"

Shikaku tailed off at about the same time Tsume's smile dropped off her face with a resounding clang; in fact the two of them were so unnerved by the slow, deliberate actions made by the student they were focussing on that it fell to Inoichi, still as pale as either of them but just about able to speak regardless, to sum up their emotions on the matter in his usual, succinct style,

"Ooooh dear hell in a hand-basket…"

XXX

Not for the first time Aoba was grateful for his sunglasses as they hid the sudden movement of his eyes as he became aware of the sudden attention on him; having never been one to seek attention even at a young age, this was a situation where he was usually grateful to have one of his usual friends with him, especially as Genma and Raido were a lot more used to the limelight than he was. Still, no point trying to dodge this shuriken, and it's not like I'm doing much anyway; inkling his head slightly in reverence towards the peanut gallery, the Yamashiro scion merely headed off towards where the first of the sparring grounds would have to be set up, remembering where everything needed to go as a result of his briefing by the jounin in charge of the Academy; shouldn't take a minute, and as soon as the others get here they can take the heat off. Now, actually; denying his usual desire for anonymity for a moment, Aoba glanced up again at the faces of some of the crowd he'd glimpse, especially faces of ninja he recognised, and was left floundering for a second; why are they all looking so worr…?

It was at that point his gaze almost unconsciously followed everyone elses' and he too found the blood draining from his face, sudden fear placing freezing shackles around his limbs as he realised what he saw and almost immediately realised what it potentially represented. As far as Aoba was concerned, you didn't have to have to be an expert in warfare to recognise that the sight of Uzumaki Naruto, the infamous Mouse of Konoha who, according to the Sandaime, seemed to have made the newly-founded Nezumi branch of the ANBU his idols and role models, with a big, malevolent grin on his face and his fingers in his ears was almost certainly a precursor to Very Bad Things occurring in the near future.

And yes, if the rumours he'd heard of what Naruto was capable of, not to mention personal memories of the worst cup of coffee in history he'd ever tasted, were anything even close to true, capital letters were not just justified but positively necessary in this instance.

He'd drawn in breath to demand answers, the words where on the tip of his tongue when a faint noise, like a series of fire-crackers being let off in the distance, sounded from the direction they'd both just come from and with a suddenly lead-lined stomach Aoba realised whatever Naruto had set in motion was too late to stop. Face whitening, he could only stare mutely as the boy before him as the noise went on, lasting into minutes as Naruto blinked, blinked again and then slowly withdrew his digits from his ears before stepping forwards, apparently unconcerned that he'd let off pyrotechnics with the Academy and all the associated trouble such an act could land him in. Aoba tried to speak, he really did, but all he and, if the silence was any guess, the crowd could do was simply gawp at the orange figure who slowly moved past him and dispensed a casual word of advice as he did so,

"Good nin don't look at explosions sensei".

"Naruto", finally sparked back into life, Aoba's vocal chords creaked out the necessary question, "what have you done?"

"You'll see in a moment sensei", the boy assured him, dropping the poles he was carrying with a clatter of wood before heading towards one of the trees near the edge of the sparring area, "come on, you didn't think I was at the Academy early for no reason did you? Trust me no-one's been hurt and nothing's on fire or anything; this is just a, well…", he leant back against his chosen perch and slid down the bark of the tree, smiling as he did so in the face of Aoba's shock even as it began maturing into abhorrence and rage,

"…this is just what I do".

XXX

Throughout the entire history of Konoha there had never been a single time when at least one team of ninja and researchers hadn't been looking into new and interesting ways to incapacitate, knock out, cripple or kill those who would threaten the village and its inhabitants. Though not as interested in poisons as, for instance, Suna, which was well known for being a place where anything that wasn't poisonous was venomous instead and the ninja of that baked wasteland took advantage of the fact, a village that had birthed such luminous medical ninja as Senju Tsunade was nevertheless certainly not shy of a few equalising measures for threats that would be difficult to take down by more conventional means. However such power came with a corresponding risk and therefore the use and supply of potentially toxic chemicals was highly restricted; most if not all poisons held in the village were secreted in various checkpoints, mostly guarded by ANBU or clans that were somehow resistant to the venoms they were storing (needless to say, the Aburame clan was often the first port of call due to their symbiotes being able to purge most poisons from their hosts before too much damage could be done). It was a highly regulated and very successful system that had safeguarded generations of Konoha ninja and reduced the number of genin and young chunin hospitalised from accidental intoxications to virtually zero while Suna and Kiri especially had rates five or even ten times higher.

However, though successful, Konoha's poison registrations and use process was still a set of rules and therefore only functioned correctly as long as everyone in the village was prepared to follow them and, as the entire population of the shinobi Academy save two exceptions were now discovering to their cost, Mitarashi Anko had always been one who considered a little temporary discomfort for someone else a small price to pay when she had a chance to make a fast ryo or two.

Least of all when there was a chance for her to get a good laugh out of the whole thing, which she considered nothing less than an added bonus to any pay-off she might have gotten out of the deal.

The plan Naruto had come up with and she had facilitated worked to absolute perfection; after all, as Naruto himself had pointed out following their late-night planning session Tuesday night after her shift at work had finished and he'd laid flesh on top of the bare bones of the idea he'd passed her way at lunchtime, it was unfair that his scheme wouldn't work simply because he didn't have access to the equipment he needed. Anko, on the other hand, didn't have such an issue and because of that, after a few clones experimenting with the seals he used to make his dud exploding tags and replacing the smoke-producing mixture with the chemical Anko had supplied for him, one well below her usual clearance grade, something new had been created, the weapon he would use to make his mark on the history books just as he had promised his longest-surviving sensei he would. The result had been what Sarutobi had often warned his shinobi force about being used against them by figures a lot less friendly than the Mouse; an aerosolised poison-dispensing exploding tag with a fuse set by the amount of chakra put into each of them. It was an insidious, terrifying ninja tool and, when set up properly as Naruto had early in that morning when no-one had been around, the result in an enclosed area was nothing less than utterly devastating.

XXX

Considering the bedlam that had taken over the Academy since the first supposed fire-cracker went off, the phrase regarding madmen administering their own place of residence had seldom seemed more appropriate.

From behind posters stuck to walls both as warning and instruction, from the underside of desks and on top of lighting strips the tags blew off in quick succession in the order Naruto had set them; each contained the same amount of chakra but had been laid down in a set order, starting with those closest to the main entrance. From there the explosions went off in a chain, leaving no classroom, no corridor, not even the caretakers' closet untouched; two days and a night the jinchuuriki had been granted after Anko-sensei had liberated the contraband and virtually every single hour of those free days had been spent laboriously drawing new tags, both loud and with silence seals nearby to muffle the small pop the tag would release when it went off, and incorporating his new toy into them. Naruto's experience in causing panic and disorder placed him in his element; he deliberately used the tags that would make a noise in the main hallways, counting on the bangs to gain attention and cause at least some of the senseis to leave their classes, who were at the time packing up to head for the sparring field, to investigate the disturbance, meaning that when the silent tags he'd hidden in the classroom went off their students would be left without an adult to tell them what to do. The poison itself, the most important element of the whole trap, was nothing particularly special, simply a fairly innocuous compound that, when liberated into the atmosphere as a fume of small solid particles, greatly irritated the respiratory pathways of anyone unfortunate enough to inhale it, and didn't do the eyes all that much good either if it got into them.

Due to these properties of the minor toxin Anko had supplied (and, in the Snake Mistress's favour, it was arguably the least dangerous substance she could have selected considering what she had access to) and both Naruto's fledgling demolition experience and three of his clones giving him a hand to ensure as short a gap as possible between the tag set first and the tag set last detonating, the Academy was currently populated by a horde of swearing, screaming students beset with streaming eyes and noses, dry-retching and fighting to hang out of windows to reach fresh air while the staff, many of them also afflicted by the attack, were trying in vain to calm the pandemonium. There were officially drills for how to evacuate the place in the event of an emergency such as this but, as the vast majority of the teaching chunin, not to mention the students, were new, it was almost impossible for them to be remembered let alone co-ordinated, leading to an almighty mess as each class, led by their chunin teacher, sought and, in some cases, fought to find a way out of the choking, claustrophobic death-trap.

As the obvious exit point it was inevitable that a crush developed at the main door, a horde of youngsters straining in vain to push the suddenly-reticent structures open; only by dint of the kocho himself, a cloth drenched in water over his mouth and nose, running down the ceiling of the main hall and smashing the door open with a chakra-enhanced flying kick did anyone escape that way, the wooden pole fortuitously granted to Naruto that had been barring the way simply splintering in the face of such force and letting the students who had been pushing the door tumble out and breath down deep gasps of glorious fresh air. Tiruzo, on the other hand, after checking none of the kids were hurt and collaring the nearest chunin, who appeared a second later with most of his class in tow, to arrange the survivors in terms of age and what class they belonged to, pulled up his impromptu mask back up and once more plunged into the madness to save his beloved pupils and staff members.

In all it took fifteen minutes to evacuate the entire building and to a man such as Tiruzo, who took a lot of pride in both his efficiency and his forward planning, that was stinging blow to his pride; hindsight being as perfect as it always was, he was already berating both himself and his predecessors for not having the students remorselessly drilled in the Academy evacuation plans on the morning of their first day by the time he stood to the front of the assembled classes, took in the dishevelled appearances of both students and shinobi and addressed them in a firm voice full of menace,

"I don't know what's happened here and right now I don't care; all I do know is that I will find out who's responsible and I will do my level best to ensure that whoever it is…"

"Taicho", the sudden shout broke off his declaration just before the good part; due to that and his frustrations about the calamity that had thrown his perfectly ordered day into complete disarray, it was only by a supreme effort of will that he didn't flatten the chunin who interrupted him with a blast of killing intent, "just done the head-count of my class and we're one short – three guesses which one".

Tiruzo would have been within his rights to fully bite her head off after making such a foolhardy remark in front of the entire school; the last thing anyone needed right now was a potential panic as the students realised one of their friends was missing. Those words of condemnation, however, stuck in his throat when he looked past the puffy red eyes and blotchy face and put a name to the teacher's voice; in that split-second two very important facts became very pronounced in his mind.

The teacher who had spoken was Uzashi-san.

Uzashi-sans' class contained several clan heirs, including the last Uchiha, and also…

…also…

For the long-time Academy staff it was very rare sight indeed to see their taicho's expression go from dumbstruck to outright limb-ripping, bone-cracking furious in the space of heartbeats; more than one of them would have professed to feeling concerned for the older man as a face that red surely couldn't have been good for anyone's health, least of all someone involved in as stressful an occupation as Tiruzo's. However almost as quickly as it had come it had vanished, swallowed by some kind of superhuman self-control as the jounin stood to his full height and addressed the entire Academy student body, save one very obvious; and, with any luck, soon to be ex-student; exception,

"Ladies and gentlemen, we will now depart to the training ground at a light jog – the movement will help blow whatever compound was used in this attack off our clothes and into the air where it will be rendered harmless. Seniors in front, juniors behind, everyone else take point on your classes", with order came efficiency and mere moments later, like a vast caterpillar, the future of Konoha's ninja force manoeuvred as one towards their testing grounds.

He saw his next victim and new nemesis the second he arrived but, no matter how much he longed to feel the collar of that obnoxious orange jumpsuit in his fist, business came first; with that in mind he hastily nodded up towards the stands, where most of the clan heads, parents and of course the honourable Hokage himself were seated to watch the proceedings, and split the students according to year and class, properly presenting them to their superiors in the village. Once this was duty was done and the old ritual completed the jounin was free, just before the event truly kicked off, to indulge in a little payback on the one who'd almost derailed the entire spectacle for his own petty amusement,

"Uzumaki!"

XXX

Sounds like my cue; blinking owlishly upwards at the shout and still aware of Aoba-sensei's eyes on him as they had been since the plan had been set in motion, Naruto pushed himself up to his feet and stretched off in front of the entire school, most of them pointing him out as they noticed him for the first time,

"Yeah; uhh, I mean", he hastily recomposed himself, realising it would do him no good to be impolite to someone who might well have a big say in his future school reports; and, since they're read by the old man, that means he's a damned important person as far as I'm concerned; "yes sensei?" If anything though, his attempt at manners only seemed to enrage the jounin further,

"What the bloody hell was that stunt Uzumaki?! Are you trying to set a record for the quickest Academy expulsion in recorded history?"

"No way sensei – I just got here, why the hell would I want to leave?"

"You've just set off a toxic device in Academy grounds you little idiot", the man bellowed back at him, colour rising in his face once more, "that's an immediate suspension for a start! On top of that you've jeopardised the safety of every single person in the Academy, your friends as well as the staff; what possible reason could you have had to cause such havoc on your first damn day at school?!"

"Simple really sensei; I wanted to win the tournament today but knew it was never going to happen if I fought for it like a student", somehow the Uzumaki seemed able to shrug off all that ire with a shrug and met the jounin's eye fearlessly, measuring his next words with perfect, deadpan accuracy,

"So I decided to fight like a ninja instead".

Not a sound was heard on the training ground, even the wind died down at that declaration as Naruto's words echoed around the place, every single person forced to try and digest such an unpalatable declaration; no-one else spoke, not a single person able to refute or question his cryptic words until, at last, Tiruzo managed to find his tongue once more,

"Wha, what do you mean, fight like a ninja?"

"I used every advantage I had and, this time, you gave me everything I needed sensei; in fact you said it yourself on Tuesday. The five-minute rule is iron-clad, can't be broken for any reason", now the grin was back in place, triumphant as the jinchuuriki thrust forwards a hand with five fingers spread, "I was the only one here on time; everyone else, apart from Yamashiro-sensei of course, was well over five minutes late, they've broken the five-minute rule and therefore they all automatically forfeit! Because of that rule and a bit of trickery on my part I'm the only one who turned up on time, therefore the only one who can fight and, since I can't exactly fight myself"; that you know about – I'm not giving away my clone jutsu and Yami doesn't count in this; "I win this whole thing by default! Hope you kept the engraving prints from the first time sensei", luxuriating in his triumph Naruto merely smiled at the fury rising from his compatriots like smoke from a bonfire, "after all, not the first time an Uzumaki's had their name on that shield is it?"

Not for the first time in his life Uzumaki Naruto managed to completely split opinion straight down the middle; even in the minds of the ninja present (or, at least, the ninja who didn't know what he was like), there was a tussle going on between outright revulsion that he'd won in the manner he had and admiration that he had effectively claimed a title without giving anyone else a chance at the crown, a true ninja victory. Tiruzo for his part was most likely the worst affected as very few of his pupils had ever tangled him up in his own rules so succinctly and certainly never on a scale such as this, though before he could even begin to reason through the contradictory evidence to plan a course of action about what to do next the decision was ripped violently out of his hands. From one of the third year classes a girl sprang forwards with wild fury etched deep on her face despite the dried tears and mucus; with her long brown hair flying free and teeth bared in a feral snarl as she speared a long finger towards the jinchuuriki,

"You! It's your fault we're all in this state!" Naruto glanced around him for a moment before giving a carefree shrug and folding his arms,

"Guilty as charged", he admitted before dispensing another of the lessons he'd learnt throughout his life so far, "remember hime, the ninja you should be most worried about is the one you never fight". Sadly for his Confucius moment, however, the older girl and everyone else backing her up seemed too far gone in anger to appreciate his life-lesson and instead merely acted on the instinctive command shrieked by the jinchuuriki's original questioner, the older girl appearing more wildcat than human as she bellowed her instructions at the top of her lungs,

"Hurt him!"

The dam broke and only the most stone-wreathed heart could have blamed the other children present for acting as they did; they'd been spoiling for a fight all day, suddenly blind-sided by a trap they had no idea about and then, when they'd all been extricated from that terrible situation, told that their fight had been denied them by a legal technicality. Even those children who might otherwise have been shy and never said boo to a goose were swept up in the sudden bloodlust of the mob and tore pell-mell towards the last Uzumaki, who wisely turned on the spot and showed the rest of the Academy a clean pair of heels as he sprinted away to safety. The chunin staff simply leapt to the side, realising there was no hope of stopping this riot and that technically they had no right to anyway as a student was dismissed for the day as soon as they were knocked out of the competition – it was just out of curiosity and a desire to see how well their friends got on that most of them hung around to see who the eventual winner was going to be. In fact it seemed that several of the chunin involved in this whole mess were having to almost physically hold themselves back from joining in the chase, though the more sympathetic and observant of their number were moving towards their captain as it seemed Tiruzo was stuck in some kind of shock-induced limbo – never, never before had a student broken one Academy rule and then hidden behind another in order to get ahead of the entire Academy population, and in fact could he even be punished for the rule he'd broken? The first spar was a free-for-all event, nothing was forbidden save the use of weapons, crippling or killing strikes and, despite having the opportunity to do so, Naruto hadn't done any worse than mildly incapacitate his peers; if he argued that his stunt had been done purely for the competition, was there anything that could be done to bring him to book?

Such were the thoughts rushing through the mind of the jounin kocho of the Academy as he watched an orange flash blaze over the fence-line at the rear of the training grounds, followed a few seconds later by the poor fence being virtually flattened by the stampede that followed on his heels. Tizuro's brain was flooded with these new experiences of who he could just instinctively tell was going to be the new problem child of his year, trying to predict patterns, determine counter-strategies and otherwise minimise the threat to the sanctity of the Academy's inner harmony. However, much as he'd liked to have stayed where he was to plan, he was more than professional enough to realise he had a job to do and, after taking a last look at the retreating backs of the splintering student body as they were forced to split up by the trees at the back of the training ground as they made to hunt down their aggressor, he turned and wordlessly dismissed his staff prior to glancing up once more at the viewing gallery and catching one pair of eyes in particular.

Somehow he just knew that Hokage-sama would be very interested in finding out the reasons behind this debacle and, regardless of his previous experience in his role as chief instructor of the Academy, he had a sinking feeling in his belly that Sarutobi was going to gain a perverse enjoyment in dragging him over the coals for his not taking the presumed threat of Naruto's activities seriously enough and earning the entire Konoha schooling system a masticated posterior for such a lack of caution.

XXX

She hadn't even realised she, along with pretty much everyone else invited along to this scrap, had been staring until a sudden sigh and drawling voice from beside her broke the spell and allowed her to blink again,

"This is going to be veerrry troublesome".

Tsume, along with everyone else seated close enough to hear the comment, broke their eyes away from where their children were now systematically tearing the small wooded area where Naruto appeared to have gone to ground apart in their lust to rend the first-year asunder to regard Shikaku, the Nara flumped back in his seat with a hand massaging his eyes tiredly. Apparently aware of the eyes on him without even seeing them, the jounin commander gave his reasons behind such a declaration in his usual, dispassionate voice,

"Naruto-kun, not for the first time, has managed to completely destroy part of Konoha's shinobi infrastructure thought to be near-untouchable to external forces; my initial estimates would place, at an absolute best picture, at least half of our next four years of genin being wiped out in a single stroke, to say nothing of the state of the Academy staff and the potential loss of their teaching experience. So, on top of the fact our forces are still running at a slight deficient, if Naruto-kun had been serious we'd now be trying to cope with a massively-reduced uptake of new genin for the foreseeable future as well as a terrible drop in morale", the Nara paused for a moment to let that sink in and, judging by the slight shivers from the other ninja around him as they realised they could potentially have lost their children had the Uzumaki been an enemy, it soon became apparent that Konoha as a whole had been granted another fortunate reprieve that the Mouse was working for rather than against them, "and a potential civilian uprising as they realise we failed to protect their children even in training. I have no doubt Hokage-sama is even now preparing to call an emergency meeting to discuss this incident and the measures required to make sure it never happens again", almost as though directed by Shikaku's words, the ornate hat that marked Sarutobi's position within the crowd stood erect and suddenly vanished, returned to his eerie at the top of the Hokage tower in a shunshin and leaving his jounin commander in his wake, "and all this done simply because Naruto-kun wanted to make sure he got his name alongside his mothers on the damned shield. I've said it before and I'll say it again, that child was just born to be a troublesome burr under the saddle of the Konoha command structure, and it'll only get worse as he goes up in rank; Kami-sama help the poor bastards in charge of the departments when he actually gets sworn in as Hokage, they'll never have a day's peace as long as he's running the show".

There was a brief moment of silence as all present digested both what had just been said and who had actually mustered the energy to say it, though the silence was broken by Chouza who, having ruminated on his team mates' words for a while, made a simple request,

"Well, since you'll no doubt be in on that meeting as jounin commander, could you at least let the rest of us know how he did it this time?"

"I can tell you how he did some of it; he had help", Inoichi suddenly chipped in, gesturing with his head at where one of the junior members of his department was now leaning with an arm around the shoulder of the chunin paymaster in charge of the bets for the now-abandoned Academy sparring session; though at first glance it all appeared very friendly, a closer look soon revealed that the arm around the shoulder was only just short of a head-lock and Anko had her free hand out in front of the chunin's face as though expecting payment, "something tells me I need to have a little word in Anko-chans' ear that ransacking the ANBU supply cupboard is only done when it is mission-critical to do so, not when she fancies making the life of some Academy students miserable". The sight of the crazy kunoichi once more made Shikaku sigh as he realised her presence at the forthcoming meeting was now virtually a necessity, something guaranteed to universally raise blood-pressures throughout the council chambers; to try and dissuade such troublesome thoughts the Nara stood up and started glancing around at where the majority of the students were still trampling around the training area, becoming noticeably more dispirited as it appeared Naruto resolutely refused to be found despite their best efforts,

"So then, who's use for a quick game of find-the-family in that little lot?"

"No chance", oddly enough out of all of them it was Inoichi who shook his head even as Tsume and Chouji joined the Nara in standing, "Ino-chan's going to be spitting tacks after this; I'm not going anywhere within fifty yards of her until she's had a chance to cool off some".

"Coward", Tsume accused mockingly before giving her usual toothy smile, "can't say I blame you though – beware the righteous feminine fury, a lesson I'm sure Naruto-kun will learn both first-hand and painfully if any of the girls down there cop hold of him!"

With that and a last laugh, the four clan heads bade each other farewell and went their separate ways to either simply return home, track down rogue children or prepare for another late night as a result of their role within the village security.

XXX

"I take it you've seen enough now?"

Sarutobi's question, asked as it was to the thin air of his office, might well have raised a few eyebrows had any of the normal ANBU office guard been at their posts until there was a shimmer in the air and one of the old mans' former students appeared, smiling broadly but with a definite business edge to his grin as he nodded and answered his sensei,

"Tell you this much the kid's sure as hell not his father", the Toad sage admitted, shrugging his massive shoulders, "not his mother either come to that".

"But still effective either way?" Thought that might get you going; though nothing showed on his wrinkled face internally the Sandaime smirked as Jiraiya's gaze snapped onto him with the speed of a striking mongoose,

"Effective, try lethal", the sannin growled, rising to his fully and imposing height, "I'm still not completely enamoured with the path you've encouraged him to take even if he's got most of the skills for it, but even I have to admit he's taken to it like a toad to a swamp. Those kids don't know how lucky they are; hell this village doesn't know how lucky it is that Naruto-kun seems like the kind of boy who couldn't hold a grudge in a bucket if he had to – if he'd decided to retaliate for the amount of crap they'd put him through all these years today there'd be a huge number of parents burying their children today". There was brief flash of both annoyance and killing intent from the older of the S-ranked shinobi present,

"Don't mention such things Jiraiya, don't even joke", to his credit the novelist didn't even try to argue, merely nodding and letting his old teacher explain, "Naruto-kun knows, or at least has a inkling of how dangerous he could potentially be and I have impressed upon him the need for moderation and restraint – thus far he hasn't given me any reason to distrust him and, as long as that remains the same, I see no reason to curtail him at all. As well as that, do you truly believe I'm so senile as to give someone not even a genin access to materials that could potentially cripple another person?"

"Not yet but give it time", Jiraiya joked, grateful to see some of the frost thaw from his teachers' expression before moving on, "still, he's got some people who can get him what he needs; little Anko-chan seems quite friendly with him even if she'd rather be boiled alive in oil than admit it if she's anything like I remember her being. Somehow I don't think the cash from cleaning up the bets after Naruto-kun won the contest was her only motivation for her indulging his desire for a bit of trickery, assuming he came up with it in the first place". Sarutobi, almost despite himself, chuckled,

"I would stake my hat on at least the basic plan being his – its too unorthodox to have come from anyone else. I know I may have mentioned that being able to think outside the box was arguably a ninja's most powerful skill but I have to say I didn't expect him to hold to it so fast".

"Outside the box? Sensei this kind of plan is outside the box, out the bathtub and current streaking down the high street; he won a ninja duel without actually fighting anyone because he took every single one of his opponents out before they could even get to the battle ground. That's something a jounin head of intelligence would have wet-dreams about, never mind the plaudits they'd earn if they actually managed to pull it off", Jiraiya goggled before recomposing himself a giving a brief laugh, "still though, apart for standing in awe of his plan and the bottle he had for even thinking it up never mind pulling it off, I'm laying claim to that line of his. 'Good nin don't look at explosions'; classic, that deserves a world-wide audience".

"Just as long as the source of such a line remains anonymous Jiraiya-kun?"

"Ha, who do you take me for sensei? Not been caught out yet and don't intend to break that mould just yet. Still though", looking slightly more serious, the Toad sage brought a small slip of paper out of his sleeve and held it up to the light, regarding it with a more professional eye as he spoke on, "I have to retract at least some of what I said about his parents earlier - what do you make of this?"

Taking the pro-offered slip of paper off his student, the Hokage held it in the palm of one hand while he examined it; he recognised the basic design after a second but, as he examined the squiggles of the partially-exploded seal matrix, there were definite differences between what he was expecting and what he actually saw,

"It appears to be one of the sealing tags I had drawn for Naruto-kun for his espionage missions", Sarutobi admitted slowly before glancing at his pupil, "but it does look somewhat different – you think…?"

"I'd like to say I virtually know but, even now, I'd hate to say for definite", Jiraiya admitted before pointing out the tag itself, specifically the long tail of identical seal sequences that curled down from what had been the main storage seal at the centre of the matrix before it had blown up, "I recognise those though, used them myself to good effect in the past. Most common way of increasing the time-delay on an exploding tag for a seal novice is to take a timing seal of known duration and just duplicate it on the seal, which is exactly what's happened here. I took this from the Academy before I came here sensei, no doubt that this and a lot of other tags like it are what he used to pull this off, so unless he's found his own supplier I'm pretty sure it's a given that he's learnt to at least copy and slightly modify the dud tags you gave him into something a little bit more effective".

"So then, fuuinjutsu", the Hokage murmured slowly before passing the tag back to his student, "not something I'd expected him to take too much of an interest in to be honest, at least not yet, but I see the bloodline has bred at least partially true. I know he uses storage seals quite liberally, I suppose it was only a matter of time before he expanded his knowledge base; I'll have the Academy sensei put on alert though – apart from perhaps you I doubt there's anyone in the village who knows what can happen when novices start to mess about with seals beyond their capabilities". Seeing the knowing look appear in the older mans' eyes Jiraiya did his best to hide a wince,

"Are you ever going to let that one go sensei, it happened nearly thirty years ago!"

"And even after thirty years my old jounin vest still has a whiff of pig manure about it; I had to wash in the pond outside because Biwako-chan wouldn't let me in the house stinking like I did", the Hokage retorted, Jiraiya once again wincing as he too remembered what the outcome of his attempting to use a seal he'd engineered himself to fulfil a D-rank mission back in the mists of the distant past, "just be grateful I pulled Tsu-hime off your carcass before she actually killed you; at the time I was sorely tempted just to let her get on with it and hide the body afterwards".

"Don't remind me, I still get the phantom pains from that even now", the Gama sennin remarked, rubbing along his ribcage ruefully, "it should have worked perfectly, I just tweaked the storage seal slightly counter-clockwise and that made it backfire right after working. Besides, we cleared the pigsty didn't we?"

"Shame about the surrounding environment", Sarutobi muttered under his breath before, banishing the memory, he tuned in again to catch the tail end of his students' question, "sorry, what was that?"

"I asked, what's the plan for the Academy after this", Jiraiya enquired, honestly curious at how his old master was going to handle this potential hurdle in his rein, "they're going to be an almighty stink kicked up, especially because Naru-kun's been a bit of a prat in admitting it was him who did it".

The question rendered Sarutobi quiescent for a moment before, after a moment, he began giving his slow, measured answer,

"The spar will have to be rescheduled of course; though everyone will remember Naruto-kun won this year there's no way a result like that can be allowed to stand officially, it'd look far too suspicious. I'll arrange a council meeting where Naruto-kun can stand up and explain himself and how he actually carried out his attack; I think I'll leave that until Sunday though", a slight smirk graced the wizened Hokages' face, "if I know Tizuro-kun at all he's probably currently in the foetal position under his desk trying to work out where it all went wrong – hopefully by then he'll be back on solid food". Jiraiya snorted,

"Yeah, I remember him; good enough nin but stiff as a first-year genin chucked into a kunoichi hot-tub", the sage suddenly chuckled as a sudden thought crossed his mind, "that'll be an experience for him; Naruto-kun will either get him loosen up or snap him in half. So, apart from that how're you planning to get the heat off our newest potential prodigy?" At that question the Hokage's expression became positively devious,

"Well, considered the amount of money she's just made from an insider tip, I should hope that Anko-chan will be persuaded to take a dive in this instance – she'll be at the council meeting to explain her part in it, I'll brief her beforehand to make sure she appears as the brains behind the operation with Naru-kun as her patsy".

"Bet they'll both love that one".

"Love or loathe it, it will happen", the Hokage assured him, taking off his hat and hanging it on the back of his chair before easing himself down to answer some correspondence that his secretary had placed on his desk, "as you pointed out I won't endanger Naruto-kun despite our anti-corruption and spying measures being tightened up somewhat over the past few years. Call it paranoia in my old age but I refuse to believe the Leaf is as secure as it could be; the business with Kumo proves that we still have much work to do to live up to our reputation as the greatest of the Five Nations; and until I am satisfied I intend to secure Naruto-kun's safety as much as I am able to, and if that means he has to learn to portray himself as an anti-establishment rebel who can occasionally be tempted into borderline-illegal acts then so be it. Better him annoyed at me than dead by the hands of our enemies".

The last declaration swirled around the empty office and Jiraiya was slightly surprised the didn't kick up a cold breeze along the way; with a slightly more serious gleam in his eye the spymaster faced his old mentor fully and bowed slightly,

"The Kami no Shinobi has spoken and this mere mortal will do all he can to spread his gospel"; still got it; the irritated glance Sarutobi flicked his way, to say nothing of the pencil that followed it, forced Jiraiya to hide a grin; he still hates that nickname and I can still bait a rise out of him if I use it properly – nice to know some things never change; "okay old man, I know when I'm not wanted. I have a few new contacts to check out – I'll report back in a few months to give my report and sign off Naruto-kun's first report card. See ya".

With that the taller man retreated out the window with his usual flourish, leaving the Hokage alone in his office; grateful for the silence as despite his serious role in Konoha's defence and intelligence departments Jiraiya could still be exhausting to deal with sometimes, the old man lit up his pipe and considered the ramifications of the day. Another hole in the village security, another of my jounin driven almost to distraction and Naruto-kun once more follows in his mothers' footsteps, though this time he's surpassed even her. Kushina-chan managed to upset and alienate her who class and sensei on her first day; memories of the brash Uzumakis' introduction to the students who would become her acquaintances, friends and, in at least one case, her lovers as well, flitted across the venerable man's mind and he exhaled a plume of smoke as the faces of mother and son superimposed on each other in his mind; leave it to Naruto-kun to repeat the whole trick on the entire school and teaching staff on his! I dread to think what he's got planned for tomorrow.

With a last chuckle Sarutobi focussed on the paper in front of him and gave the short, neat text his full attention, putting the issue from his mind until it became relevant once more; in this his timing was as always immaculate as, had he wondered about his adoptive godson's future plans, he might very well have driven himself closer to his eventual retirement by actually finding out what Naruto was up to at the weekend.

XXX

Ojayo Palashiru, known to most of his friends as Pal-kun, was a diligent, honest and hard-working man, three character traits that had stood him in good stead in his preferred trade and, due to both his own nature and a little luck when it mattered, he was now someone in a position of moderate civilian importance in a ninja village, controlling as he did one of the major banks as its manager. It was role he took very seriously as, perhaps more than any other trade than weapon-smithing, the fortunes of his business was dependent on reputation, both of the bank as a whole and his personally. This desire to ensure the boat was never rocked too much was one of the reasons he always arrived at work before the rest of his staff to check all was as it should be before anyone else arrived, and in this instance it appeared that his diligence was well-rewarded. Pursing his lips in disappointment, Pal glanced at the open window and made a mental note to remind all his staff on the importance of locking up properly; just because Konoha was policed and protected by ninja was no excuse to let basic security principles slide; as he entered his key into the back door lock and let himself in, hoping to get a nice saucer of tea before the rest of the staff arrived. Upon entering the back office, however, an obstacle immediately appeared in this path towards an ordinary, ordered morning.

There was a man in the back office.

Pal didn't remember letting anyone else in and was sure no-one else at the bank had a key to this particular door.

He seemed to be dressed like a ninja.

To his great credit the manager didn't scream, try to run or do anything else suicidally stupid; instead, half-remembering words of wisdom granted to him in passing by friends who had shinobi family members, Pal drew himself up to his full height and demanded brusquely,

"Who are you and what are you doing here?" If he was surprised by this resistance the intruder didn't show it, instead pushing himself up from the arm rest of the chair he'd been leant on and looking the older, paunchier man up and down before asking,

"You the boss of this place?"

"The manager; yes, I am".

"Good, you need to tell people not to leave windows open, I was expecting to have a harder time getting in", the man told him in a conversational tone, pointing to the window Pal himself had noticed on the way in, "that wasn't shut properly, let me in easily as a breeze".

"So I see; so, who are you and what do you want here?" The interloper, who looked quite young but was a stranger to the older man, reached down to his pocket and Pal tensed, ready to run or fight even if his efforts were likely to be worse than useless against a ninja like this man obvious one, but rather than a kunai, a small piece of paper was held out towards him between two fingers. Advancing cautiously, the bank manager took the paper and scrutinised it as the other man explained,

"I'm part of a new branch of the police force set up by Hokage-sama; he wants the ninja to be a bit more accessible to the common man so, here I am, making sure your security protocols are up to scratch and learning a bit about how your business, in this case the bank, actually works. So, here I am", he shrugged and gestured towards the door that led to the actual working areas of the back of the bank, "mind showing how you guys shuffle around the money like you do".

Seeing the paper before him and recognising the seal on to bottom of it as being the Hokage's seal, Pal felt a great rush of relief flood through him as he realised the man wasn't a threat. Handing back the slip, the manager nodded at his new guest and spoke in a more professional tone,

"Well then ninja-san, welcome to my little establishment; you have savings with us?"

"Nah – heh, you think I earn enough to have anything worth saving?"

"You're throwing kunai at a split dummy there ninja-san; I take it you don't want to give your name", the shake of the head answered that question and prevented all further lines of enquiry, "four little girls and a son, you know how it is? Well, come through and I'll show you where all the work is done, though I'm afraid I can't open the safe, there must be at least three staff members in the office when that happens, for security you understand?"

"Yeah, makes sense to me", the ninja answered, passing through the door Pal held open for him, "so then, the paperwork all feed in…what in the name of the wart on the Nidaime's stone face is that?"

Following the pointing finger towards the offending article Pal felt a slight trickle of pride warm his veins as he realised that once more his foresight had helped his bank and given them an advantage over their competitors. The ugly-looking large grey box might not have been aesthetically appealing but what contained within, compared to pen and paper, was unimaginable potential,

"Ah yes, that; we had it imported from the Land of Snow not long ago, had it working only a month or so; almost ruinously expensive of course but even in the time we've had it working it's come close to paying for itself".

"How? What exactly does it do?"

"It's called a computer and what it does is consolidate peoples' records", Pal explained, warming to his subject and moving forwards to rouse the slumbering beast, "saves us a fortune in pen and paper, and allows us to move money between customer accounts with virtually no time delay – we can even settle business transactions without going through the hierarchy as we'd have had to go through the head office usually for that kind of thing".

"Sounds like a real bonus", the ninja said appreciatively, watching the formerly-blank screen light up as the power behind it came online, "how does it work?"

"Well, first we wait for it to wake up, then we go through the password; I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to step outside for that step shinobi-san, security and all that – simply can't be too careful these days…"

Too right you can't; the thought drifted over the mind of the boy once again hidden beneath a face that wasn't his own as, back in the staff room to give the manager the privacy he needed to operate the computer properly, he retrieved jiji's permission slip from his pocket and examined it casually; gotta get this right and not get caught – I've got a feeling I'm in enough hot water as it is after yesterday. Still, my idea to even ask for this slip had to have been sent by Kami, I can learn so much with it – I mean, I didn't even know a com-pu-ter existed before today. Besides, thousands of kids dream about breaking into a bank; an evil smile split the lips of the pretend shinobi, though he was fortunately able to quash the expression as the bank manager called him back in to the main room to see what the computer could actually do; it was only a matter of time before one of us actually went and pulled it off!

A/N: Well pull it off Naruto has, though as mentioned in the AN above, there is an announcement here and, sadly, it's not a great one; due to work deciding I'm the perfect man to be dropped off at a very remote location in the ocean somewhere surrounded by highly-sensitive equipment for the next God-only-knows how long, this fic and its sister are going to have to be put on hold until probably the end of next spring. Where I'm going it's not possible to take my laptop due to the equipment we're using (seriously, going in there with a normal computer is about as smart as walking into the middle of an oil refinery and striking a match) and using work machines is right out as they're in a public domain so I can't do any writing while I'm out there – sorry guys, but reality bites and I kind of like earning a wage I'm afraid.

I'm going to spend the rest of the time I've got before I have to catch that plane finishing the next chapter of Win Some, Lose Some (and for those of you who read that one, yes it will be the second and last part of Dog of War). So, sorry for the bad news but I'll be back - hope to hear from you all next year!