Chapter 24 – Mouse Around Town.

A/N: I should have had this up earlier but here's the reasons why I didn't in no particular order; moved twice in quick succession due to work, family holiday, Christmas and New Year, upgraded to new PC (with delicious, delicious new graphics card and 8GB RAM, ummm, salivate!), training course for work and XCOM: Enemy Within (if you don't know about this one don't look – it will consume your life!) Still, we're all here in the New Year so hopefully this'll do for a belated present to you all.

Hold up, are we about to see the first antagonist in our show?

XXX

"Well, I'm pretty sure we just lost the Uchiha clan".

Strangely among an assembly of shinobi, rather than outright frustration at the sudden absence of such a formerly-powerful military asset, such a dire proclamation stirred only bored apathy,

"It was only a matter of time", Tizuro shrugged, the kocho barely looking up from the paper he was grading as the duo of first-year instructors crossed the threshold into the staff room, "whose toes did the little brat trample on this time? Don't tell... in fact do tell me it was Uzumaki – I'd pay good money to see how much of a mess he'd make of our resident sociopathic genius".

"That's a little harsh from you Ti", one of the other teachers, this one a veteran of the Third War and with the scars to prove it, grunted as Aoba eased past him, heading for the coffee machine, "I know Sasuke didn't enamour himself with you on day one but I didn't think it was that bad".

"Had it been up to me he'd not have got to day two", the headmaster of the Academy spoke, placing his paper down as he realised the interest from the other staff members, "unfortunately that decision wasn't mine due to the need to eventually rebuild the Uchiha, fat chance of that happening if Sasuke doesn't extract his head from his behind before he pisses off the wrong person".

"Too late for that", Uzashi groaned, heaving a sigh of frustration as she thought back over her classes' most recent physical education session; and already I'm dreading the report this one's going to need – how do people do this teaching thing for years?; "personally I tried giving him a little leeway after what his brother did but he's burning through that like a katon through kindling".

"And earlier just sent another chunk of it up in smoke", Aoba cut in, handing his teaching partner a mug of something steaming before flumping into the chair next to her, "he's no bother in class, never says anything at all unless you ask him directly, but in all honesty I'd prefer it if he was acting out. It's ironic in some ways; out of the two orphans in our class there's not a kid, or teacher come to that, Naruto's not pranked or driven around the bend at least once but despite that most of the class look up to him in some way while Sasuke never says a word to anyone and they either love him or hate him".

"Bad as that?"

"We've started calling him Marmite, and not just after his hair", Uzashi enlightened the kunoichi who'd asked, "the only thing he's got are either fan-girls or enemies, though on the very limited up-side he's likely to lose the former once the Mouse is through with him".

There was a collective shudder at the name, a second of silence permeating the staff room as, regardless of their personal feelings on the matter, all minds were joined in sympathy for the latest target of the Academys' latest scourge, though to give the little devil his due the glitter cannon that had painted his classroom and teachers pink some six weeks ago had been the recent worst of it. However it soon passed and the more important details were demanded,

"What happened?"

"Well..."

"...right, last thing and you can all go home for the day", none of the exhausted students cheered, knowing their sadistic teachers would use the emotion as proof they hadn't given their all yet, "all in lines and, courtesy of Uzumaki Naruto", true to form the infuriating nuisance merely grinned through the irritated glares lanced towards him, "away trios, go and I'm keeping an eye on you girls at the back, try slacking off and I'll have you running laps until the Godaime is crowned."

"He better get a move on then", someone grunted back from amid the perpendicular bodies, each one moving forwards, up and down in order to their individual cadence, "and Naruto I'm going to kill you when this is over and my arms recover".

"I'm good for the weekend then", the Uzumaki shot back to his unseen accuser, his shorter stature an advantage in the punishing exercises Gai-san had shown him, "though speaking of which we still on for the weekend Kiba?"

"Sure thing, Hana's back off her patrol then", the Inuzuka heir managed, fighting through the burning in his arms to go up and down one more time, "she'll help give us the run-around, assuming we can run tomorrow".

"A hungry Haimaru will get anyone moving", the future Hokage shuddered through more than just fatigue, "believe me I know".

"Speaking from experience Naru-baka?"

"Still rather be chased by them than you hime", the Uzumaki assured his new antagonist, all but feeling the Yamanaka's glare burning a hole in him as he retaliated against her slur, "they've got a nicer bark and their bites' not as hard".

"The second I can feel my fingers..."

"I don't want to know what you want those fingers to feel thanks", Naruto panted, looking under his arm and smiling insouciantly at the flushed, scowling face he could in the peripheral vision of his left eye, "and stop perving on my butt Ino-chan; I know it's appealing but please, not in public".

"Naruto you ...sensei I'm canning it here; I need my arms to kill him!"

"Not before you get to twenty-five Ino-san, I'm counting", Aoba called back, "and for your information Naruto-san she's not looking at your butt, she's looking at Sasuke's".

"Sensei!"

"Oh is that so?" Naruto had to bite his lip for a moment and do a couple more walkaways before he could contain his mirth and regard the boy three over from him, "Come on Uchiha-san, wiggle it a bit – give your fangirls something to swoon over!"

Of course the other boy said nothing, continuing to push through the exercises with the single-minded focus of a machine. Sasuke usually said very little; the Uzumaki sometimes wondered if he had a kind of bet or silent challenge going with Shino in this regard; and seemed to survive on nothing but fresh air and scowling but hearing Ino reduced to babbling denial was just too tempting to resist,

"Sensei we're going to need some cold water and ice-packs back here; if the kunoichi are anything to go by the sun really does shine out of Sasuke-kuns' rear".

"Naruto enough – get on with your set", even from short experience Uzashi had quickly learned the best way to deal with the effervescent blonde was to squash him before he built up a head of steam, "and if anyone drops before twenty we go back to the trees and sandpit!"

Luckily none of the assembled did, one or two of the first years finally breaching into final set of the now-infamous 'away' trio, its instigator one of them and left staring up into the sky after the class was dismissed,

"Remember to stretch off Uzumaki", Aoba called over, marking off the last few scores of his pupils and holding back a smirk as he heard a shaky retort,

"Will do when I can feel anything below my shoulders sensei, could take a while – oh hi Sasuke-san, what do you...?"

"What's your problem Uzumaki?"

"Uh, depends who you ask", recognising a potential flashpoint Aoba carefully sidled closer to where the last Uchiha was now hovering over his prone classmate, only a wash of sweat staining his shirt indicating the gruelling training he'd just done – whatever his flaws, Sasuke never failed to push himself to the limit every chance he got, "and most people would say I usually am the prob..."

"You're a joke Uzumaki – everything you do, everything you say is just a damned joke", the chunin had to concede whatever art made bland statements all but vibrate with malice Sasuke had it in spades, "you and the rest of them, laughing like it's all a game. You have no idea, none of you – I thought you might have been different given this training you came up with but then I found out you didn't even do that, an older shinobi gave it to you and you passed it off as your own".

"With his permission, and I never said the aways were mine", Naruto had rolled to his feet by this point, not backing down an inch from the taller child as he fought his corner, "and while we're on the subject what's wrong with having a laugh with your friends, it makes the day go quicker, though I suppose you wouldn't know? Never seen you so much as smile or even acknowledge those who look past your 'winning' personality – you say I'm a joke? Let me tell you if you graduate from this place with that attitude you'll never stop being the punchline of a gag you'll never get".

Aoba saw the Uchiha's fist clench and readied himself to intervene if he had to, Uzashi having seen his covert signals and concerned herself with clearing up for the day as well as making sure this potential fracas wasn't going to be noticed by tardy students. Fortunately however Sasuke kept his cool, merely bumping past his diminutive antagonist and sending Naruto staggering back a pace, the blonde too busy rubbing his sore shoulder to respond to the massacre survivors' last words,

"This world of ninja will chew you up and spit you out, you and your friends; only the strongest have the right to survive. In the face of the truth your dreams mean nothing and when you finally realise that, when your goal of becoming Hokage dies just before you follow it into the Shinigamis' embrace, remember I warned you. You've got a chance to be more than the rest of them, these idiots who think offering me their time or companionship, or giggling and playing with their hair will make me or anyone else notice them – staying with them will drag you down, gaining strength will let you survive".

With that the Uchiha left, sparing not even a backwards glance as Naruto cocked his head at his retreating form, glancing from the corner of his eye at the figure that approached and, at length, making a quiet observation,

"Is it just me", the Uzumaki began uncertainly, as though weighing something up in his mind, "or was that Sasuke giving me either a warning or a compliment?"

"Probably a bit of both – I have no idea what goes through that boys' head even on a good day", Aoba admitted, surreptitiously checking the jinchuuriki over for bruises following the barge and training before that, "even you're easier to read than he is sometimes".

"Really? Damn, must be getting rusty", the smaller figure complained, rotating his arms with a strangled groan as his shoulders protested the motion, "still, even if he's got a point I'm not sure he's really got the message about how ninja are, or if he does he got a pretty twisted one".

"Hardly surprising given what happened to his clan – you heard...?"

"A little, though I was out of Konoha driving a caravan of vagrants mad at the time; the great Uzumaki hunt, you remember?"

"I heard rumours, unlucky they weren't your brand of Uzumaki though".

"Unlucky for who? Me, you or the village?"

"All three to varying degrees; anyway don't think about it too much – Sasuke's been through a lot and it's coloured his idea of what a ninja's supposed to be, he's not the first and won't be the last. He'll improve with more time at the Academy, that's why you're all here after all – everyone's got flaws, it's our job to knock them out of you as best we can".

"So it is, so it is, though in his case I might give you a hand", the hair on Aoba's neck began to rise; the smile on the Uzumaki's face had turned devious, "calling me, Kiba-kun, Ino-hime and the others a joke? No matter what you've gone through anyone who wants to be a ninja should know better than to just dismiss anything or anyone".

"Very true but are you sure you should be the one doing the teaching?" Aoba joked, only for the humour to fall flat as Naruto looked up at him, a strange kind of deepness making his periwinkle eyes dark as old memories churned beneath them,

"Who better than the joker to wear a killing smile? One of the first lessons I was ever taught, one of the most important too, ought to get it through to him", somehow it was the chunin who felt like a student as he watched the Academy trainee glance once more down the path Sasuke had trodden, "even a rusted, brittle joke of a weapon can kill you if it's in the right hands".

There was an instant of silence around the room before it was broken by a rustle of paper sheaves, Tizuro reapplying himself to his task both to get ahead in his marking and disguise a hint of chagrin; after all, Sasuke wouldn't be the first one in this school to have the Uzumaki teach him a lesson;

"And he's not wrong; as long as there's nothing permanent I'd advise you let him get on with it".

"Even with the last Uchiha?"

"Especially with the last Uchiha", the kocho confirmed, nodding at Uzashi's scepticism, "I'd imagine the only healthy thing that boy would react to is a rivalry and I'm sure everyone here remembers at least one or two scrapes in the grounds, you least of all Kodo".

"Too right, still got the scar from under-estimating a first-year handy with a practise shuriken", the war veteran chuckled, nodding at the kocho in both fondness and respect, "knocking him down a peg or two now will keep his head on his shoulders in the field, might even awaken his bloodline early if he's lucky".

"Or Naruto gets really creative", Aoba added, shuddering at the thought; took me weeks to get the glitter off my chunin vest, and Genma didn't help by spreading the rumour about me trying to form a ninja strip-troupe; "still, if either one of them suddenly and mysteriously disappears cover for Uzashi and I?"

As expected there was a collective nodding of heads and conversation turned towards other matters, including some of the upcoming exams for the staff. However despite no-one actually answering the former long-time genins' question everyone already knew the answer had been silently given – when it came to the ninja Academy of Konohakagure, it wasn't just the students who made sure what happened on the grounds stayed on the grounds.

XXX

As the door banged behind him Naruto threw his tatty old rucksack into the nearest convenient corner and threw himself into the kitchen, ignoring the ache in his arms as he answered the question he asked himself,

"Rough day?"

"Something like that Nez", the henged bunshin nodded sympathetically as it carried on making notes in the Book of the Mouse, a quarter of the book now filled with his unofficial studies in banking practices; including, thanks to Pal having my back after I covered for him that weekend, a couple of the shadier ones as well as those done over the table; "got onto the last of the aways mind but something's going to have to be done about Sasuke".

"Didn't start a fight did he; he seems like the type".

"Nah, too calm for that, too clever too, not going to fight someone where the senseis can see him", the jinchuuriki admitted, mulling over the raven-haired boys' point of view and beginning to deconstruct it logically, "thanks to what happened to his clan he's two things; messed up in the head and got everyone, or a lot of people at least, ninja and civilian, turning a blind eye for him in the hope of currying favour, which means he could fall into the Nara dung-heap and come out smelling of roses. He's good as well, don't get me wrong I respect that he's well-trained and he'll graduate..."

"High as well", the bunshin broke in, speaking as he scanned over what he'd just written, "bank's already got a betting pool going that he'll pass out as rookie of the year".

"Already?"

"Two of 'em have kids in the Academy and one who doesn't is an Aburame, trust me they know what they're talking about".

"I'll bet, odd to think of an Aburame in a bank - no luck with the symbiosis?"

"Hive wouldn't take but Juro's not bitter, he likes his job", Nezumi informed him, remembering the strangely approachable clan member; bit like Shino's kaa-san in that regard – I really must find out her name some day; "so, plans for the night?"

"Let my arms recover", Naruto groaned, rolling his shoulder and feeling something crunch unpleasantly, "plus I've got a date with the Inuzukas tomorrow, no doubt Hana-chan's going to love thrashing me and Kiba-kun about the place if the Fukumiwarai-Kyodai were up to their normal tricks on their patrol. They say it spices up a jaunt around the local villages", Naruto snorted, trying to imagine the duo up to their normal antics while Hana-chan tried not to pull her hair out keeping them in line, "ah well, better to laugh during a mission than cry".

"Very much so, even if you're dealing with some belligerent idiot who insists you've written their account number wrong when in fact they've got two of the digits mixed up – fifteen minutes it took to sort that mess out", Nez shuddered, his creator inadvertently groaning at the thought of sifting through that memory later, "still the bank's taught us about all we're going to learn and check this out", intrigued, the jinchuuriki stepped forwards to scrutinise the small, neat piece of paper the Nezumi-bunshin had carefully extracted from between closed pages of the book, "Pal even wrote us a letter of complementation for if we need to go for a job later on".

"Really? Nice"; should have thought of that; such letters, proof of trustworthiness and skill between civilians much like ranks and designations were within the ninja ranks, would certainly help grease the wheels of a mask trying to infiltrate a particular profession, "he even left the date blank too, we can fill that in when we have to. Make sure nothing happens to any of these we get, and if you can get them from any of our future jobs go for it".

"As well as any qualifications we can nab if there are any", Nez reminded his creator, idly wondering if it was normal for clones to be as independent as he could usually be; though maybe not elemental clones, how do you make a rock talk?; "still I unofficially gave notice at the start of the week, tomorrow will be my last day and I'll start looking for something else to sink my teeth into".

"Any ideas?"

"A couple but I, or you'll have to hone them over time – do you think it's weird, the way we actually communicate?"

"Nah, ninja-sign classes start next term".

"No I mean technically we're the same person, you're effectively talking to yourself", the bunshin explained, his creator making to answer before the truth of the statement struck him mute and forced him into to some sudden psychoanalysis, "and worse than that I'm, and therefore you're answering. Isn't that a sign of madness?"

Though a construct of chakra the Nezumi-bunshin was far more than just a jutsu with a name, he was an echo of his creator in all ways, mental and physical, and if there was one thing Uzumaki Naruto was, or had been trained to be at least, it was a practical, flexible thinker. Therefore, the jinchuuriki only mulled over this question for a moment or two before shrugging and pointing out the practicalities of his unusual teaching arrangement,

"Maybe, maybe not but if it is it's probably one of the less-serious ones".

"Really?"

"Anko-sensei".

"Point taken", the bunshin shivered, glancing around as though the Snake Mistress was hiding in the shadows nearby; and when Anko-san might be involved Mr Paranoia is your friend; "so, what are your plans for the night? Homework?"

"No, that's for tomorrow, got a special delivery to take ownership of tonight – the Hasuwadas", Naruto went on at his jutsus' nonplussed expression, "got those new uniforms to look over haven't I?"

"Already?" A scan of the calendar confirmed it, "Wow, time flies; still I'm done here, make sure you read todays' lesson, it was a good one and I'm not sure, in fact I'm pretty certain it's not strictly legal". "The best kind", Naruto grinned before nodding at his bunshin, "still, good luck on the job-hunt but remember nothing late on Wednesday night, we don't want to leave our date high and dry". Remembering the highlight of the school-week nights and the partner who made them something Naruto looked forwards to wearing his alter-egos' face for, Nezumi chuckled,

"Think she's figured it out yet?"

"Not sure and even if she has where's the fun in letting her know? Anyway, get yourself gone; I'll look over the notes before I hit the armoury".

"Heh, pandas today, Haimaru tomorrow – never ends does it?"

"Not for the next four years or so with any luck – okay, I'm ready".

As was becoming common Naruto had his eyes shut and breathing even when the puff of the kage bunshin dispersing met his ears just a fraction before the returning memories hit his mind; his eyes stayed closed as the experience of living a day through someone elses' eyes rushed through his senses, engorging his mind in a semi-organised jumble. Though much improved from when he'd first discovered how autonomous his shadow clones were it was still a good half-hour before Naruto could bring himself to see again, vision throbbing angrily in time with his pounding head – Nez had obviously had a heavy day. However given what he now knew it was a fair trade and he knew from experience the migraine would be gone within the hour, long enough for him to skim through the lessons his adult-henged bunshin had gathered for him throughout his day-long work experience. And from there to Ten-chan and my new suits, though I wonder if Nez was right about the whole talking-to-clone things; the thought made him pause as he reached for a ramen cup from his nearby cupboard; I'm right that most ninja have quirks – look at Anko-sensei, or even Gai-san, but is it worrying that I'm a bit young? People who get bad habits young have a bad habit of turning out wrong, and hurting others doing it.

Visions of Sasukes' scowl made Naruto simultaneously shudder and feel a slight whelm of pity for the last Uchiha – he did have a reason to feel as he did and maybe he'd improve but, if he carried on the way he was, the jinchuuriki resolved, he'd teach the lesson he'd learned at the cost of a few shuriken then and an aching heart later. As for his own issue he had the weekend – perhaps Inoichi-san would be open for some off-the-cuff therapy tomorrow after his date with the Inuzuka heirs? If anyone would know he would, and apart from that there was always a chance to tease Ino-chan about her wandering eyes in the Academy...

...and camomile paste was a great anaesthetic for teeth-marks, probably best not forget that...

XXX

As the package, illuminated by the lowered lights of the stores' interior, slid easily onto the counter the tension as broken by the chuckle of a child,

"You know if internal security were to raid this place now this would probably give them a really bad impression".

"Ha, if those nuggets can find anything apart from you worth taking as evidence they deserve them", Muruda chuckled, unfolding the last the of the packages and revealing the burnt orange clothing within, "here we are then Naru-kun, as promised there are four in here, the others can wait until you hit your growth spurt".

"Watch it", the Uzumaki grated, still touchy about his height and lack thereof before discounting the annoyance and looking over his future uniform with deep interest, reaching for the sleeve, "nice, I can feel the rattans".

"Bit of padding in there as well, not just cloth either", the weapon smith added, explaining at Naruto's piqued interest, "it's a special material, similar to that used in ninja vests but a little softer and thinner, Kishi-chan used the off-cuts from the usual orders we get. It'll stop a kunai if you block it right, point or edge".

"Handy", the jinchuuriki admitted before moving on with his inspection, "forest camo inners?"

"All but one, the fourth has white-grey in case we get a bad winter. That should do for now, we'll get other inners when you've gone through a few years and you go onto the wilder training grounds".

"The sand-pits and foothills? Third-year I should think", Naruto had often visited the training areas crafted to resemble terrain not found within the land of Fires' borders to allow training for external missions, though as the forces who frequented them were usually Academy students with practise gear or elites who left no trace, they were sparse hunting grounds for a scrap-merchant, "plenty of time before those are needed. Now avert thine eyes Panda-chan, the awesomeness might blind you", leaning on the counter the future weapon-mistress sighed to disguise a snicker as her kouhai slipped off the jacket he was wearing and slipped on one of the new ones, crossing his arms across his chest as though bound as he did so,

"Let's see, head tilted slightly, tongue outh", through careful manipulation of his extended muscle and vigorous sucking he managed to snag the corner of his collar, bringing it into his lips and working them for a second before jerking his head back in triumph, something thin and metallic clenched between his teeth,

"Purfet", he managed before spitting the hidden wire out and gently shucking the jacket off, taking care to replace the hidden thread, "not sure if the Academy teach wire techniques for picking locks but if they don't I know people who do".

"End of my year, it's a graded part of the final exam", Tenten chipped in, already planning ways of getting similar thread in her own clothing and mentally castigating herself that she'd not thought of it first, "and check out the trousers, the senbon behind the back of the knees was my idea". Naruto recoiled, fanning his face as though a courtesan reacting to some unspeakable faux-pas,

"Ten-chan I'm appalled; if you want me to take my pants off at least wait until we're in private".

As his daughter tried to blush and blanche simultaneously Muruda, holding in a chuckle himself, leaned over his worktop semi-casually and enquired in the tone unique to fathers surreptitiously checking out a potential threat to their daughters' reputation or chastity,

"I hope you're not casting aspersions there Naru-kun; you haven't paid for these yet and there's always a chance for the market to suddenly spike you know?"

"I know and I wasn't; Ten-chan was doing a pretty good job of that herself", the jinchuuriki pointed out reasonably, Muruda only just catching his nod in time as his adopted daughter once more gaped before drawing herself up to her full height and scowling,

"Baka – don't make me prove how kunai-proof those suits are!"

"Mean Panda-hime, you know I was joking", the last Uzumaki soothed, hiding a relief exhalation as some of the frost thawed from his old friends' expression, "besides your tou-san said I'd have to block properly to stop more than my ego getting pricked, against you I doubt I'd have a chance".

"Too right", the budding weapon mistress nodded proudly, the elder Hasuwada present also beaming before remembering himself and turning to his customer, "so, happy with your order Naruto-kun?"

"More than, how much do I owe?" Already reaching for Gama-chan the jinchuuriki was brought up short as his supplier raised a hand forestallingly,

"Leave it until they've had a decent run Naruto, problem with these suits is that they're made to a set template and you can never tell how old the template was when they were made. Suits made from an older template tend to be a little weaker than newer ones so I always offer a customer a trial period to make sure there's no hidden weakness before money changes hands. Normally I'd say a week of training but given you're at the Academy I'll say three weeks to a month before I come knocking on your door looking for payment, sound fair?"

"More than, but you said hard training? Hah", as he began wrapping up his package the jinchuuriki shook his head, "I've got Hana-chan running me into the ground tomorrow; if these suits can stand up to nin-ken teeth they'll have more than proven their worth!"

XXX

God I love these arm-guards; the thought floated idly through his mind as he turned his head away from the wonderfully blue sky overhead towards his now somewhat mangled and slobber-stained sleeves; those bites could have broken my wrist like a chopstick, just as well she's got them so well-trained;

"Well, you going another round or have you two had enough?"

"Mercy", the prostrate figure a little way over from the orange-clad shinobi croaked, just about managing to flap his arm feebly as a token of surrender, "I can't feel my legs and you'll have to pick my arms out your nin-kens' teeth later".

"Hah, as if they'd eat meat that stringy", the Inuzuka genin laughed, her younger brother trying to snarl before deciding heaving down air was more important, "still I've seen worse; not many but I've see them; you should pass the Academy runs easily enough".

"Especially since we won't have any slobber-chopped dead-weights dragging us back", Naruto pointed out, casting the nearest of the Haimaru a bemoaning glance; and I swear they're laughing at us both somehow – Kami I wish I understood their language like Kiba does; "if we can tow one of them some hundred paces before you declare us dead I'm pretty sure a few laps carrying an unconscious Academy student won't be that hard".

"Unless it's Chouji", Kiba chipped in, grimacing as he stretched his arms off and deflecting his clan-brothers' pointed glare with a shrug, "I say it as it is. He's the biggest of us by a long shot, I doubt they'll let anyone casevac him until they're happy we can fortify ourselves with chakra".

"That'll be the second year probably", Naruto mused before their former teacher-stroke-torturer (in Kibas' mind – compared to the senseis Naruto was used to Hana-chan was a pussy cat, not that he'd ever let the Inuzuka know that for fear of giving her motive to change) added her two ryo worth,

"Probably will, and much as I don't say this often Kiba's right", had he any feeling below the elbows the youngest of Tsumes' children would have fist-pumped in glee, "unless you're a taijutsu nut you'd need chakra to get an Akimichi off the field so they might as well make training imitate life".

"Life", Kiba groaned, levering himself to a sitting position over howls of protest from his stomach, "if this is the life of shinobi at least there's no reason to fear what comes afterwards – Jigoku can't be as bad as this surely?"

"Not sure but you're not back before evening meal kaa-san might send you to find out personally", Hana pointed out, pointing to the sun, "so get moving, pair of you unless you've got somewhere else to be tonight Naru-kun?"

Considering the three of them had been training, not too harshly given the Academy demands on the younger, developing bodies and the genin knowing better than to run her brothers so hard they ran the risk of tearing anything so early in their training as some of her peers had foolishly done, Hana honestly expected a negative and was caught flat-footed when the smallest child present shook his head,

"Not this time, got some business to get on with; speaking of which though, mind if I ask you something Hana-chan?"

"Sure, go ahead".

"Uh", as the blonde grinned and scratched the back of his head awkwardly something fluttered uncomfortably in the clan heirs' throat before she hastily swallowed it back down and tried to look neutral, "kind of a private question really – it's about her team before you get any ideas".

"I'm sure – oww! Nee-chan..."

"Chase him back to the compound", having seen Kibas' salacious glance the elder child of the dog-breeding clan was in no mood to be merciful as she instructed two of her partners, "nip him if he stops to rest and if I beat you back after giving you a head-start I'm handing you over to Rimaru-ojisan tomorrow!" Kiba's jaw dropped,

"You're cruel – oww! Alright I'm going, I'm hobbling as fast as I can, ah, ah-a cramp, cra-ah-ah-amp, and stop nudging me in the back!"

"Your fault for not stretching off properly", Hana called after the shambling figure, Kiba moving at a swift limp and shadowed by her nin-ken as Akamaru, who unlike his master had kept moving since they stopped, merely trotted along easily to keep up, "sorry about him Naruto-kun, what was it you wanted?"

In all honesty a very small part of her was very worried; not because Naruto was a threat at all but because even now she wouldn't put it beyond him to have set a prank for her or, worse still, if she failed to beat Kiba home there was no telling what lurid rumours he could spread or how far they'd go before she squelched them. Still, gives me a bit of experience in surveillance if nothing else, intimidation as well; the thought rolled around her mind for a moment before Naruto's voice centred it again and she fought down another flutter; even now she still wasn't sure where she stood with the child. He was her brother in all but blood but she felt so inadequate still; he'd given her back a stolen part of her soul and she'd done nothing; mercifully; to repay him for it, but what could she do? She certainly didn't love the Uzumaki, at least not the way her treacherous hormones had all but forced her to in the immediate aftermath of the lost Haimaru returning, but at the same time should couldn't help but both admire him and wish there was a way she could help him that wouldn't give anyone the wrong impression. Still, that's for the future; ironing her expression flat and doing her best to hide her thoughts Hana focussed on where Naruto had just regained his feet; for now, one question at a time;

"What was it you needed to know"; and it better not be a joke if you know what's good for you!;

"Don't worry, nothing too serious", Naruto began with a raised hand, quelling some of her anxiety, "thing is I've got a friend, and just a friend before you get any ideas; known her longer than I've known you; and I've got a plan, but for the plan to work I have to ask her to dinner but not as a date", he made that point so clear Hana could only conjure up a small chuckle at the image of the Uzumaki on someones' doorstep with a bunch of roses in his hand, "it's more a... business arrangement than anything else. What I wanted to ask you was, if you wanted to ask the baka-brothers out for a team meal, how would you go about it without making it feel weird?"

"Uhh, good question", the Inuzuka admitted after a moments' stunned silence, "definitely a girl, this friend of yours?"

"Yep, long-time friend and that's all; both in the Academy and both too young for anything more serious".

"For now?"

"For now", Naruto agreed, seeing the Inuzukas' eyes flare in surprise and moving swiftly to defuse her teasing, "I'm not a shrine-maiden, I can't see the future and if it goes that way someday I'm not going to complain. However for now I've got a promise to keep and to do that I need to be at her place in about an hour and a half not stuttering like a fool – any ideas?"

Hana thought on this for a moment, weighing things up in her mind before shrugging and leaning down slightly to see her younger clan-brother more closely, her expression softened by his question,

"It's hard to say really Naru-kun; I don't know this girl and can't really help you there; but if I wanted to invite 'Zumo and Ko out I'd just do it, ask them outright – the worst they'll say is no. Not that they ever do, grubbing bakas they can be at times", her complaint was undermined by her rueful smile; following visiting the shared home of her two team mates the Inuzuka knew well why neither of them were above accepting such charity; and Kotetsu's kaa-san wasn't quite herself last time I was there – poor Ko, no wonder he was a little wild in the Academy. It's a horrible thing to say but I wouldn't want to go home to that some nights unless I had to; "so just go for it, don't be embarrassed about it, just ask".

Having said her piece Hana simply shrugged, fussing her remaining nin-kens' ear as he sauntered over while keeping an eye on the, unknown to her, jinchuuriki. Naruto for his part seemed deep in though, looking down as his wet sleeve until a cold, wet nose on his hand made him start, then chuckle as he ran fingers up the Haimarus' muzzle,

"Sorry boy, lost in thought for a minute there; I was thinking the same thing Hana-chan, just thought I'd ask though".

"No such thing as a stupid question", the Inuzuka told him, repeating one of Tane-senseis' favourite sayings before stepping forwards and ruffling the Uzumakis' sunshine hair, "I'll let kaa-san know you couldn't make it but not why – trust me if you think Kibble's bad for teasing you've not seen my mother get going yet".

"He had to get it from someone – look after yourself Hana-chan", as a small, warm hand covered the back of her own the Inuzuka felt that flutter once more, an uncomfortable jolt of heat that made her snatch for breath for an instant, though luckily Naruto didn't notice, "thanks for everything today".

"My pleasure", the Inuzuka managed in reply, watching as the younger child turned and began loping lazily away, waving over his shoulder in a gesture she just about managed to return somewhat forlornly. She waited; somehow the idea of beating her brother back to the compound didn't seem so important anymore; until he was lost to sight then took a deep breath and blew it out lowly, scratching the lean, angled face that brushed her hip as her nin-ken sensed her unease,

"What do I do Hai-kun?" Hana murmured aloud, all the unease and fractured feelings she'd thought she'd buried once more unearthed by just a few seconds of privacy with the Uzumaki, "How can I... forget that what am I even feeling for him – I just don't know any more! I know, I know you're probably right", she admitted as the grey form leaning against her rumbled advice in their shared language, "I'll ask kaa-san soon if it doesn't settle down, last thing either of us need is me going off like I did that night! Kami and the ancestors", flipping her ponytail back over her shoulder the genin shook her head as though she could physically dislodge her unease, swearing as she tracked through the woods on the outskirts of her clan territory, "what a mess!"

Fortunately for the Inuzuka scion Hana would never know that, due partly to her advice, she wouldn't be the only one left in such a state that evening; after opening her bedroom window after hearing a loud tap, another young maiden of the Leaf village was left both blushing vermillion and wishing for the earth to swallow her up as the figure in the street, bold as brass and not caring a whit as his shout drew the attention of all within earshot, called up to her,

"Get your coat Ten-chan, we're going to dinner!"

XXX

Luckily Naruto was quickly able to pour oil over the waters he'd just chucked an exploding tag into with the blessings of his friends' parents; just as well, given how Muruda-san was tapping his forge hammer into his palm and Kishi-chan wasn't doing much to stop him; and a quick handful of cold water dashed over his face the pair of them were on their way to their next destination, the Uzumaki ready to fulfil an old promise. It was a pleasant enough evening and Naruto himself was more or less recovered from the attentions of the nin-ken earlier – however it seemed his partner for the evening, far from leaping about the place as she had been following the Uzumaki explaining the reason behind making his toe-curling invitation, was becoming less and less sure of the whole thing with each step she took,

"Okay the head is Oyakata, no…yes….no…yes, yes it is; men have katas, women kugas; and as the guest you sit close to the head table to avoid being sliced in the event of an attack but not so close you could attack with a hidden blade. But I've got sealed kunai, would they count – Naruto…?"

"Tenten…"

"What?"

"What?" The two fell into silence for a moment before, smiling weakly to cover her jangling nerves, Tenten nodded,

"Sorry you first, you invited me along after all".

"I did indeed", Naruto agreed before squaring up to her and looking stern if not directly unkind, "now calm down before I slap you".

"What?"

"You heard", the jinchuuriki pressed, not giving an inch as his friend backed up a pace, "this isn't an exam or an audition, we're just going as friends to the Akimichi clan holdings to share a late meal with the clan, same way hundreds of ninja have done in the past and hundreds more will do in the future, likely including you and certainly including me. You know I've spoken to Chime-okugata but we're not going to see her, not yet –this is just to get your face known around the Akimichi place and for me to give you a couple of pointers into how the clan works – I don't even know if Chime-san's even in the village now. She's got family in Tetsu still, she might be visiting them".

The last part was a partial lie as Chouji had casually admitted the next clan expedition to the frigid land was planned to coincide with the Academy winter holidays but as it had the desired effect in letting Tenten-chan seize control over her runaway imagination he considered the white lie worth it. Settling her weight onto her back leg the Hasuwada scion closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then another before opening them again and facing her long-time friend with a smile,

"Thanks Whiskers; next time I start babbling like that just slap me and explain later, I'd deserve it".

"You would, anyway come on, we're cutting it fine as things stand", trusting the Uzumaki to know his business; especially when it comes to the business of food; the older Academy student allowed him to catch her hand and easily kept pace as he led her through the streets an unerringly as a thrown kunai, "we've missed the first and second starters as a given but there's still hope for the fish course, even more so if Hiwari-sans' overseeing the kitchen and puts out a sorbet…"

Whether Hiwari did or didn't put out a sorbet (whatever one of those was) Tenten would never know and, as she watched the Uzumaki hail the stout clansman who thrust open the thickly-barred gate with a single meaty palm following his yanking on a thick bell-cord,

"I come in peace Shuri-sama, honest".

"I've heard that before", the thick-set woman grunted gutturally, looking down at the bowing Uzumaki as though he were his ramen topping namesake and she a hungry gourmet; and what would that make me, the tooth-pick?; "sure you're not here to cause trouble?"

"No I'm here for the food, the odour of which is delighting me even from here".

"When doesn't it? And who's this?" Tenten hadn't had much to do with the Akimichi clan; there were none in her year at the Academy and they, like most of the ninja clans, had the equipment they requested delivered in bulk rather than picking up individual orders; but seeing one in the flesh this close was not a relaxing proposition. The woman who faced her down wasn't particularly tall as the pre-genin was eye-to-collarbone with her, but she was formidably built and with her marksmans' eye Tenten could see a generous measure of that build was muscle, to say nothing of the way she'd thrown open a door thicker through than the width of Tenten's palm with one hand. Still she was here now and she was not going to back down at this first and likely most gentle challenge; bushido required courage from its practitioners,

"I am Hasuwada Tenten Akimichi-san", she introduced herself with a respectful bow, "a friend of Uzumaki Naruto, he invited me here".

"Did he now?" The growl became more of an amused rumble as the Akimichi steepled her fingers, looking between the two fingers, "Very bold Naru-san". The jinchuuriki scoffed,

"Bold, bah – you'll be thanking me as soon as she graduates and starts raking the mission money in; where else in Konoha is fit for an active kunoichi to eat? Anyway, quick introductions as I'm starving; Akimichi Shuri this is Hasuwada Tenten, Academy second-year; Ten-chan this is Akimichi Shuri, soon-to-be jounin of Konoha". It was the turn of the newly-named Shuri to scoff,

"Jounin, that's a laugh given this", Tenten craned down to follow the elder womans' gaze before realising she was looking at her left knee; old injury maybe?;

"What did the med-nins say?"

"Same thing they say every time - light training and cross your fingers", the Akimichi muttered before blinking away the foul memories and stepping behind and to the side of the opened door, "still stop making the street untidy and come in, I'm sure Naruto can show you to the main dining room with his eyes shut from here".

A few moments later Tenten didn't doubt Shuris' word that Naruto knew his way around the place; in fact he knew his way around so well the only thing stopping her asking why was his non-stop explanations of the modest artefacts, paintings and tapestries on display down the hallway she was being led down,

"Real Tetsu that one is, the last piece Chime-san's great-uncle forged before he made Kurosawa", the Uzumaki informed her, stepping past the small plinth holding a ceremonial jitte with healthy respect, "he never made another blade after that one, said it was the pinnacle of his craft. I've never seen it but Chime-san says it's currently at the hip of the general of Tetsu so if it's good for him chances are it's not going to be easily bettered".

"Too right, samurai consider their swords part of their soul", the weapon mistress agreed, pausing to examine the sheathed weapon as best she could with a cursory glance; the handle's well-made but practical, not much decoration –it was made as a weapon for battle, likely for a woman given its shorter blade, makes it easier to sheathe in an obi. Making a mental note the Hasuwada scion made to follow her guide only to have to pull up suddenly to avoid walking into the back of him, the sudden concern in Narutos' voice making her both crane over his shoulder and reach for one of her concealed scrolls,

"Uh-oh, the Mouse has come face to face with his greatest foe", as the Uzumaki dropped to a knee Tenten caught a glimpse of a small puff of bushy hair rushing towards him before even that was mostly lost behind the much smaller childs' shoulder, "and a terrible battle ensures", she could hear flesh slapping against flesh but as she skirted around the brawl couldn't help but laugh at the sight,

"Friend of yours Whiskers?" Caught out by the sudden voice the tiny person who'd been throwing a blizzard of flying fists towards the Academy students' open palms stopped, a fatal mistake as it allowed her opponent to swoop in and hoist her off the floor with a squeal,

"Friend? No Panda-chan, this is the Akimichi's best mouse-hunter", Naruto proclaimed, pulling the squirming figure off the shoulder he'd hoist onto and shifting it; her; Tenten corrected herself as she saw the flushed, giggling face underneath the mop of frizzy brown hair, "Moegi-chan this is my friend Tenten-chan, Ten this is Akimichi Moegi, aka the Mighty Moe".

Despite herself Tenten chuckled a little at the title, the Akimichi infant, scarcely more than a toddler if she was any judge, likewise amused as the bun-haired girl stepped forwards and shook the slightly-sticky hand that was offered,

"Very nice to meet you Moegi-san", she greeted diplomatically, the child grinning broadly as she nodded,

"An' 'ou; got'a'Uto".

"Yep, you got me Moe", Naruto agreed quickly, seeing his other friend mystified by the young Akimichi's name for him; Moegi couldn't quite pronounce 'Naruto' yet, "so, you here for dinner?"

"'Ep!"

"Glad to hear it, so are we – now, where's your kaa-san, where'd you leave her…?"

Some fifteen minutes later, having handed Moegi off to a woman who had, giving the multitude of Akimichi Tenten had been forced to recently greet, avoid or elbow her way through, obviously married into the clan, the visiting Hasuwada had gladly dispensed with both nerves and a little dignity as she sprawled in her seat groaning,

"Uhh, it's all too nice", she complained, loosening her shirt a little as Naruto glanced over amused, "don't leave me Whiskers, you'll have to carry me home".

"And why's that Ten-chan?" The Uzumaki wore a mischievous grin as he suddenly poked his friend in the belly, drawing a moaning wheeze, "Eyes bigger than your belly?"

"Stop", the weapon mistress pleaded, slapping the prodding digits away feebly, "another mouthful and I'm going to pop like an exploding tag!"

"Really? That's a shame, three more courses to go before dessert"; the thought made the future kunoichi groan again,

"Nooo, lead me not into temptation; you are slow and likely to get rolled over if I get a head of steam up". A sudden deep laugh from behind the two of them made them both look over (Tenten, not trusting herself to twist just yet, craned her neck backwards to see upside down over her seat) as a figure familiar to one of the Academy students stood regarding them,

"A fate several of our enemies have met in the past", Chouza pointed out, regarding the kunoichi as Tenten, her former fullness quickly disappearing, span in her seat to regard him, "still Naruto-san, dare I ask how you persuaded this young lady to accompany you to our table tonight?" The jinchuuriki snorted,

"How do you think I did it?"

"Not sure but I'm starting at blackmail and working my way up from there", Chouza riposted cuttingly, Naruto unable to hide a wince as he noticed Tenten snigger from the corner of his eye; oh that is it!;

"Blackmail, you'd dare – Tenten", the Uzumaki drew himself as high in his seat as he could manage as both clan head and Academy student regarded him, one with amusement and the other with a sense of impending embarrassment, "my honour is being impugned by this ruffian – kill, maim, disfigure… not yourself", the Uzumaki despaired as his friend slapped a palm over her suddenly-heating cheeks, "I swear you just can't get the guards these days".

"We certainly can't if you got this far without a challenge", the clan head agreed, regarding the blushing girl with interest and trying to remember if he'd ever seen her before; though having said that I don't know much of Naruto's social life, not my place to pry; "still if the master doesn't ask first time heed the servants; he's not holding anything over your head is he young lady?"

"No but if he carries on embarrassing me he'll wake up one day and find me holding something very heavy and sharp over his", the Hasuwada promised, glowering at her oldest friend evilly before facing the Akimichi squarely, "Hasuwada Tenten, at your service and your clans". Chouza gave a rumbling laugh,

"Very polite, you sure you're friends with this ragamuffin?"

"Sometimes I wonder". Folding his arms, Naruto turned away from the pair of them with a huff,

"There's gratitude for you".

"I am grateful and you know it", Tenten assured him, smiling slightly before being struck with a sudden chilling thought; what do I tell them, the Akimichi – I can't say I'm here to ask for samurai training off their clan heads' wife, it'd be too forwards!; "though my stomach might be regretting that gratitude tomorrow; that last teriyaki dish was heavenly. What did you season it with?" Chouza's eyes sparkled with mirth, though he hid it behind a sudden stern demeanour,

"Oho, a bold one you are girl, asking clan secrets just after setting foot in our clan house". Tenten went pale,

"No! Oh I'm so sorry…"

"He's joking Ten", mercifully Naruto was there, his kindly hand on her arm halting her protestations of innocence as he threw a nasty but meaningful look towards Chouza, "leave her alone you great bully, you know she's nervous".

"I know, I know; sorry Hasuwada-san", the clan head gave an apologetic bow as Tenten recovered her breathing, and to her credit she didn't hesitate in joining her friend in lacerating him with a piercing glare; she's got spirit if she's who I think she is; "a little joke, nothing meant by it".

"About the only thing little in his clan house", she shot back, not backing down an inch as Chouza felt his appreciation for the willowy figure rise another couple of notches, "for this fare though I'd forgive a lot worse than that; Naru-kun'll probably have to roll me home by the end of the night!"

"I'll send the compliment to our chefs, though speaking of the little devil", Chouza's glance was meaningful as he flashed it towards the seated jinchuuriki, "you paying your fare in the usual way?"

"You bet, I'll be back straight after Ten-chan's back at home and I'll be paying for hers as we…"

"You bloody well won't", the weapon mistress's words were as sharp as her kunai as she rounded on her friend, slightly hurt he'd not mentioned the price before now and disappointed in herself that she'd not thought of it, "I'll pay my own way. Actually", inspiration struck and she reached for her belt before pausing and looking up at a now interested Chouza, her tone humble as she remembered her etiquette, "with your blessing Akimichi-san, I would unveil a weapon at your table".

"You have it as long as the weapons' not used", Tenten was shaking her head even as a small plume of smoke covered her lap and she offered the kunai up handle-first, the sharp blade resting in her palm. Had Chouza wished it he could have slit her wrist as he took it from her but he didn't, instead testing the weight and balance of the weapon in his deceptively-sensitive hand,

"A fine kunai", he admitted after spinning it around a few times; however as he made to give it back Tenten shook her head, instead holding her scroll forwards,

"There's a dozen and three in this scroll Akimichi-san, a token of appreciation for the efforts of your clan tonight. I'm not yet the smith my father is but, on my honour as a Hasuwada, none of these weapons will fail".

Chouza said nothing for a moment, looking between the kunai and the girl before making a sudden realisation,

"You forged these?"

"I did, and sealed them; tou-san was a journeyman seal-crafter before he… retired", fortunately Tenten was so engrossed in her conversation she didn't see Naruto glance away guiltily as he remembered exactly why Muruda had been forced away from the life of a shinobi, "and he taught me fuuinjutsu as he taught me to forge". Casting an eye over the small, intricate designs dotting the crisp parchment before him Chouza nodded solemnly in appreciate,

"Then it seems your tou-san is an excellent teacher with an excellent student", Tenten almost, almost blushed, "but please Hasuwada-san keep them, this is your first visit after all".

"True Akimichi-san but leave no customer waiting and no debt outstanding, that's the Hasuwada family motto", the girl replied, remembering the smile on her kaa-sans' face as Kishi had told her the family secret Muruda had been teasing her about for the first few weeks after she'd started pumping the bellows in the family forge, "giving these only makes more for me to forge more and work on my forging skills so please, they are yours".

With that she offered up the scroll and, after a moment, Chouza reached down and gently took it from her, noting with some relief that he'd taken far more than just the weight of the parchment from her as he did so,

"With this there's no debt between our clans Hasuwada-san; if anything we of the Akimichi are indebted to you", Tenten was so relieved it took her a few seconds to bow in answer, long enough for the Akimichi head to shoot his other guest a meaningful look, "still, enough of this serious talk. Enjoy the rest of the meal; ah excellent, I always did like blackberries in a sorbet, makes the taste tarter…"

XXX

"So, uh…coffee?"

Tenten laughed, the figure just behind her on the doorstep joining her melodious mirth as she regathered herself and screwed her nose up suddenly,

"The cheese, it burns", she complained before winking at the jinchuuriki, "besides, my parents are home".

"I can be quiet; okay, okay", as his smouldering look broke on her weary but coy expression Naruto held a hand up, "give my regards to your folk Ten-chan, we'll likely do that again some time".

"We'll have to, that teriyaki", the weapon mistress licked her lips at the memory of the sizzling dish, "get that to the front lines you'd have enemy nin drawing lines through their headbands for a taste or two".

"I don't doubt it; anyway Ten I'd best leave it here – I've got to get back and get re-acquainted with the washing up. Good idea with your kunai though, shame Chime-san wasn't there to see it but you've definitely made an impression".

"Hopefully the right one", the older girl said morosely before stepping forwards and enveloping her friend in a hug, "thanks for everything Naruto-kun, I really mean that. Oh, whoa", despite herself the weapon mistress couldn't help but let out a small shriek of delighted alarm when the arms around her middle constricted and she felt her feet leave the floor, Naruto straining to heave her from her doorstep for a second before depositing her back down and letting go,

"It was my pleasure Ten, you Hasuwadas have always been kind to me", he said without shame, Tenten not quite able to meet his eyes as he placed his hands behind his head and grinned, "still, next time you get a hankering for a culinary pleasure the like of which you've never experienced before, you know where to find the Akimichi".

"You bet I do; again, thanks for everything", Naruto said nothing but nodded, waiting until the youngest Hasuwada slipped inside her family store and he heard the click of the lock from inside, proving that Tenten was home and safe. Mission partially accomplished; the Uzumaki was already mapping out the last conversation he'd have to have tonight as he turned on his heel and back-tracked towards the Akimichi compound; now if I can just get old Dumpling's opinion all will be right with the Nations before I go to bed.

His chance to gain the opinion of the Akimichi clan head came a little later that night when, elbows-deep in soapy water, the jinchuuriki felt someone come over to him and nodded at the powerful figure approaching across the kitchen,

"Chouza-sama, great meal as always but where's Chouji-kun this weekend?"

"He's helping out at the Sangion, they've got a couple of functions on and needed extra hands", the clan head informed his impromptu helper, "enough about him though, I'm beginning to think there might be a bit more Akimichi in you than I was prepared to admit given what I saw of your date tonight". Not looking up from his washing up water Naruto shook his head,

"Normally I'd be flattered but as you're doubtless grinning like a dirty old man I'm going to go with shocked and appalled on this one".

"Shocked? Not as shocked as everyone else left cursing Kami-sama that my great and noble clan always end up with the most beautiful brides", Chouza teased, grinning as this time the jinchuuriki did take a break from his labours to glare over his shoulder, "though I suppose having a girl like Tenten would be one way of boosting the numbers of the Uzumaki clan…"

"You're going to get a face-full of suds if you're not careful", the trainee-shinobi warned threateningly and, realising he'd made his point, the clan head backed off a pace, "still, had a chance to use Ten-chans' kunai yet?"

"One or two and they fly very straight, a little heavy on the back edge but nothing to be sniffed at from a girl her age, especially one who's learning fuuinjutsu. Still, I assume this Hasuwada is the girl you've mentioned to my better half?"

"She is indeed, natural with weapons and an absolute dead-eye; she was wound up tighter than a spring coming over here but you'd never have known it by the time we sat down. I was hoping to bump into either you or Chime-sama while we were over here, though I never mentioned what either of you looked like".

"I noticed she didn't know who I was", the large man mused before nodding, "avoiding her nerves, good plan Naru-kun. Chime-hime was in battle-meditation all evening, hence why you never saw her but I'll certainly put in a good word – in fact", rubbing his hands off with a dishcloth, Naruto glanced over as he caught the calculation in the Akimichi heads' tone, "yes, it's a few months until we're next here for the head meeting isn't it?"

"Three if I'm counting right; no, four, forgot the Yamanaka. Why, you want me to bring Ten-chan along?"

"And bring her here a few more time before that", Chouza added, the plan becoming clearer in his mind as he neatly tied together a few more variables, "don't let her know who myself or Chime-hime are but we'll get Chouji-kun to get his face known to her at the Academy. She's got etiquette that one, no little courage either – it's just her mind and judgement I worry about".

"Why – Ten-chans' pretty smart…" He could tell by the grin that broke over the big mans' face that he'd been set up for something but by then it was too late to stop,

"Naruto-kun, I reserve the right to call into question the judgement of anyone who'd call you a friend with a completely straight face".

As the cutlery had already been dried and put away Chouza considered it safe to let that line slip; however he hadn't reckoned on an irked jinchuuriki who could, he belatedly discovered, wield a pair of saucepans with thitherto unprecedented proficiency, resulting in a somewhat embarrassing conversation that night when he got changed for bed and had to explain to his dear wife why his thighs appeared so well-tenderised.

XXX

No luck there either; though the slip of paper in his pocket, to say nothing of the seal it was stamped with, was all but burning a hole in his pocket the nondescript figure currently meandering through the streets of the Leaf village was content enough to not employ it just yet – after all, the Hokages' word was law but even the venerable Sandaime had a limit on what he could get away with on the non-military citizens of his village. He'd rather earn his employment honestly than be forced to strong-arm a way in unless there was no other way, though thus far it had been a frustrating weekend and didn't look to be easing up; taking a short break from his walking, Naruto's henged kage bunshin ran a hand over his face and ran his options back through his mind.

He was looking for a role that was reasonably unskilled at first but could, with training, give him at best a tangible qualification in a civilian skill and at worst practicable, demonstrable skill in them, preferably skills that would get him inside a potential victims' home for whatever purpose he needed. However the problem he was running into with that approach was that the businesses or individuals versed in such skills weren't really interested in hiring and training someone who was only going to leave afterwards and he could understand that – as Pal would have said, that was a poor return on your investment. Still, true or not it doesn't help my cause at the moment; it was a thorny issue he was wrestling with now – how was he supposed to get into such training without both making anyone suspicious of his origins and being a blatantly poor choice for learning such skills? What he really needed was an in, a route into one of these businesses or families that could teach him what he needed to know but how he was supposed to get one he had no idea; still, hanging around on street corners isn't helping at all, though if worst come to worst I could always hone my skills under the red lanterns, I'd just have to be a bit smaller than I am now.

The conundrum rocked his mind for most of the day until, as the shadows started to lengthen, Nez found himself at the main gates of the Leaf village, looking out onto the path leading into the training grounds and the land of Fire beyond them. Crossing his arms as he leant against the side of a convenient stall the chakra impression of the jinchuuriki was lost in old memories, smiling slightly as younger days of hunting scrap by the light of the dawn or his head-torch filled his mind; and Slim, can't forgot who that stick came about-hard to imagine that was almost the same size of me at one point. The thought of the small twig, now propped up in a corner of his bedroom in honourable retirement, made him chuckle for a moment before he blinked it away, stepping forwards to the struggling figure that had just been signed in by the gate chunins,

"Need a hand there?"

The older man, likely somewhere around Flea-ojisan's age if he was any judge, looked up sharply and Nez stopped his approach dead; he'd seen those reactions far too often before; ninja, or at least he was. Putting up a hand to show he was unarmed, the disguised kage bunshin said nothing until the man, labouring with a bag slung over one shoulder that seemed to be dragging him into the floor with its weight, looked up and nodded after a deep breath,

"Can't say I'd mind", his voice was husky, his clothes stained by sweat, dirt and something else Naruto couldn't quite place, like dust but at the same time definitely not the dust he was used to, "me partner had the bad grace to get the cramps halfway through our ground, we're supposed to carry these one between two". Grimacing as he hefted the bag by a sturdy canvas handle and feeling the weight of what was within strain into his shoulder, the kage bunshin glanced over his shoulder, scrying up the path the man had come from,

"Where is he now?"

"Still there, recovering", the worker, who or whatever he was, replied, looking to move on, "he's still soft, not been chopping long enough to toughen up but I'm not missing my wife's evening meal waiting for him and we're not dismissed until we sign all this back in".

"Fair enough, where we headed to?"

Luckily their target wasn't that far from the gate, only a couple of hundred yards but even that distance under the burden he was jointly bearing was enough to make Nez give his impromptu partner some credit; if he'd carried that bag on his own from even the nearest training ground he must have maintained either his ninja strength or his chakra reserves. Talking as they navigated the thinning crowd the kage bunshin was quickly enlightened that the man, Hasha Hinzoku, had given up the ninja life after being wed to his wife some twenty years previously ('best thing I ever did – my career was going nowhere and I got out just before the third war kicked off, though I'm still on the reserve list just in case') and now worked, as did a lot of former nin, in a rather unusual occupation, one Nezumi had never thought of and one Naruto had never seen on his scrap hunts. Intrigued by the job as much as by the idea that former nin might be more amenable to helping out a would-be assassin than most civilians would be, the kage bunshin was only too eager to nod at Hasha's concerned question, the older man looking him up and down after the canvas bag they'd deposited the on the main counter of the tall, long building just behind them had been hauled out of sight by the sweating counter man,

"You sure? Someone your age, it's not really a young mans' game, the pay's not enough to get you a good start in life".

"You seem to manage all right".

"That's 'cause I'm a grizzled old bastard with better financial brains than most", Hasha told him, remembering a few times those brains had come in handy before; yeah, you all laughed that I never came out or went on the lash on the Friday night – now I'm here doing something I want to do and most of them are still stuck in that office; "still, can't stop a man attending his own funeral; be back here for six tomorrow morning, we'll get you introduced to the team. Shouldn't take too long to clear the patch we're working now and if you're still going by the early stack you might have what it takes; either way I'm not worrying about it now. I'm going home, see you tomorrow Neziri-san".

"And you Hasha-san", the kage bunshin replied, reminding himself of his new, spur-of-the-moment name so he wouldn't forget it; Neziri Noroka, should be easy enough; "that was lucky, at least I've got something to do tomorrow. Better let the boss know…"

The bunshin did so and, following bursting back into life early the following morning after Naruto set his alarm for half-five, slightly earlier than he was used to but a comparative lie-in compared to his early days. Meeting Hashi-san with the plenty of time to spare Neziri was soon introduced to a regular crew of other people who'd be working what Hashi called 'the patch' with them for the day and quickly realised that a substantial number of them were former ninja and all of them were older than him but at least two decades; still, what else is new? Luckily the bunshin was well-experienced in being the youngest in a group and rode the forthcoming ribbing as he had before, giving as good as he got and earning the respect of the working crew as the trekked out of the village and into the training grounds, signing out with the gate chunin as they did so.

Some hours later, towards the middle of the afternoon Hasha's promise was well-born out and they were done easily, signing the equipment they'd used doing very little to dampen the bunshin's newly-generated excitement. Nez felt like the emotion was eating him alive from the inside, this new role and, more than that, the fact that a lot of the people he was working with were former ninja who now owned or had joined other businesses; make a good impression here and this was potentially his in. Bidding his workmates farewell somewhat jerkily from the excitement the kage bunshin knew it was against normal protocol but was so excited he just didn't care this time and knew he creator wouldn't either. With this in mind he rushed back home at breakneck speed after making a few diversions to throw off potential pursuit, then checked left, right and up, waited a second longer to see if his nascent 'ANBU-sense' twanged with anything before, when it didn't, swiftly vanishing into a puff of smoke.

XXX

Though they'd never admit it even to each other both Aoba and Uzashi had been waiting for Monday morning with baited breath; after the altercation between the last Uchiha and the last Uzumaki on Friday, both reckoned Naruto had been given ample time to plot a comeback to Sasuke's arrogance. However even as they took the register it seemed such apprehension had been in vain; despite his talk to Aoba, the jinchuuriki seemed completely uninterested in his former antagonist and was content to simply listen to Aobas' lecture on the finer points of ninja tool maintenance; though the students weren't officially allowed to handle even training weapons yet, that was no excuse for not knowing how to care for their weapons. The two rookie teachers would be lying if they said they had a bad class; if anything, despite drawing Naruto in their lot, the fact that most of their students were clan children meant they knew a lot of what was being taught in this first year. If anything the biggest problems the two faced was potential boredom, something that ironically enough Naruto unwittingly helped with, though his aid often came with a lash to his instructors' pride,

"…concludes how best to coil ninja wire, and Uzumaki if you mention your special kunai one more time I swear…!"

"But sensei, it is a special kunai", the jinchuuriki protested, fiddling with something under the desk as the chunin bit her cheek in order to keep her cool, "look", something metallic, if blunt and rusted, was held aloft and deposited on the wooden desk with a clunk as Uzashi looked on goggle-eyed, "it's double-edged, how are you supposed to store that in your pouch?"

"You're not, you need special holsters for those", Aoba made the save, though even through his glasses you could tell he was looking from the weapon to its owner severely, "you also need a shinobi license to have them commissioned – where did you get it Uzumaki?"

"I found it; no, I did find it", the shortest boy in the class swivelled on his seat, silencing his sniggering doubters with a glare before refocusing on his sensei, "picked it up years ago and had no idea what it was. I brought it in because you said we were covering ninja weapons this week – anything you can tell me about it I'd be grateful to know".

"I can tell you they're usually a bad idea; you need a lot of special training to use them even semi-competently and even after that they're not as effective as sai or a ninjato. They were mostly a short-lived experiment that doesn't even have a name any more, that one you've got there is likely only good for a museum piece. Now put it away and concentrate, there'll be a pop-quiz after this…"

That afternoon the two sensei were marking the previous nights' homework assignment when a fortuitous glance out of the window had Aoba stand up and quickly hop into the Academy courtyard, Uzashi quickly standing and looking after him perturbed. Seeing the small orange figure staggering towards the chunin with another of his class in close attendance only deepened her sense of danger and she was just quick enough to channel a slip of chakra into her ears to catch the conversation,

"Not like you to come back early from the training grounds Naruto, what happened?"

"A bug with a death-wish", the Uzumaki croaked, a pained twang heightening his still-unbroken voice, "flew right up nose as we were doing laps".

"Urgh, what a horrible death!"

"Tell me about it, at full speed as well so next thing I know I'm taking a dirt roll hard, bounced by head off the side of the track too. I'm not hurt but you know the policy?"

"I do; get him to the nurse Shino-san, then back to the field for you".

"Hai sensei".

"It's all right Shino-kun, get going now, if I fall over here someone's bound to see me; you've more than paid your debt over that kamikaze insect".

"I assure you Naruto-san it wasn't one of mine".

"I know, I know what kikaichu smell and taste like already; not my fault", he added as both his classmate and sensei shuddered, "one wrong foot in the Aburame grounds and they're all over you – I can't always spit them out in time. I'll get to the nurse sensei, want me back in class after?"

"Yes, Uzashi-sensei and I will put you through a more limited regimen and then talk to you about your recent assignment answers", despite herself the eavesdropper smirked a little, biting her lips to stop it becoming a grin; funny to think I hated his smart-aleck answers at first, now Aoba and I are all but wrestling to read them first; "until then get going, both of you".

The pair of boys did as they were bid, Shino answering his friends' wave with his usual nod before departing back to the training field at a mild jog as Naruto trekked towards the nurses' office, carefully waiting until he heard the soft slam of a window being pulled shut before allowing his mammoth, though still slightly pained, grin to show. Though Nez's unexpected memories had come at a really bad time for him, resulting in a nasty tumble, that fact was mitigated by the fact that he hadn't burst on purpose so his double-life was still reasonably secure and even more so by the knowledge he'd imparted upon meeting his smoky doom.

So this is going to be my life for a bit – hard but fair; through the pain of his throbbing head and swelling bruises the Uzumaki couldn't help but smile, already knowing the Academy nurse was just going to love him today given he was sweaty and covered in dust; and it's a potential way for me to get a toe in the door for a lot of jobs in the future if I play my cards right. And even if it's not; a particular memory, one of noise, of a spray of dust and a creaking, gradual collapse and then silence, made his grin stretch to just below insane proportioned as his blue eyes sparkled with glee; I have got to get me one of those!

A/N: to round out this chapter I'm going to answer a question that cropped up in my reviews recently; or what exactly is Nezumi? The answer to that is actually a little complicated (by design – Nezumi is both part of a ninja plan and a clone of trainee ninja don't forget), but loosely broken down here it is:

Nezumi-the-person is a kage bunshin of Uzumaki Naruto, Academy student of Konohakagure; after learning the forbidden technique and, more importantly, recognising its abilities for memory transfer, Naruto decided to use the technique to broaden his education into other trades while he was still at school to become a more rounded ninja. Due to his massive chakra reserves, if Naruto creates only a single kage bunshin it's a little more durable than most, hence it's unlikely to disperse by accident – partially as a joke of his own nickname and nascent ninja way, Naruto took to calling this kage bunshin Nezumi. As creating a clone splits Naruto's conscience and then returns it when the bunshin disperses, when Naruto forms Nezumi he is in effect creating a split personality; effectively the same bit of consciousness is recycled into the bunshin as these parts of Narutos' mind can focus on him best, though they do re-integrate well with the jinchuuriki once Nezumi disperses himself. Due to this 'recycling' Nezumi is a little more self-aware than most other forms of clones and his personality is a little different to that of his creator, he's generally little calmer and more reserved as he interacts with civilians rather than friends and ninja on a daily basis. He currently goes by the name Neziri Noroka and has just found a new job.

At the same time Naruto is working on his education there is another 'Nezumi' gathering pace; after realising what his adopted grandson had done to the ninja clans and, more importantly, seeing the impact his unorthodox ways were having on his village, the Hokage of the Hidden Leaf instigated a new programme to be brought into the ANBU of Konoha. Currently being overseen by the ANBU commander Tora, the newly-dubbed 'Nezumi' branch was named partially in Naruto's honour and partially to represent the work this new department will be undertaking when it's up and running. Thus far nothing has been seen of the Nezumi ANBU save for the odd practical joke or training exercise mishap that is quickly swept under the carpet, just as Naruto's infiltrations used to be by the clans; the ultimate aim of this ANBU branch is as yet unclear. Naruto himself is completely unaware of the Nezumi-ANBU's existence; he's just a little bitter that someone using the name keeps pranking the Hokage tower and a lot of the suspicions falls on him, making his attempted evasion of the ANBU Sarutobi has tasked to train/guide him much harder.

Hopefully that explained the whole thing of the Nezumi; it's both Naruto's kage bunshin and an ANBU branch! Any more questions like this and let me know in the reviews or PMs; I'll answer what I can (and no I am not telling you if there's going to be a time-skip or any shipping; the reason I actually like this site is that people can't skip the back page and find out how it ends!) so until then have a great 2016 and I'll get back to you all soon.