Summary: A few extrapolations on the idea of how Naruto receives the information from his bunshin when they disperse, and an accidental overreaction from Kakashi. My goal is to write a story where Shikamaru acts to his potential, because I think he's awesome, Shino gets to be badass, because he is badass, and Naruto pays a little more attention, because he has the right...

Motivation Chapter One

by Brian Randall

Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto; these are his paints. The easel is mine, but that is all. No disrespect is intended with the posting of this story.

Note: A bit of an AU, insofar as the backgrounds of the three primary protagonists, and probably on Kakashi's part, too.

There was a vantage on the Hokage monument, where one could rest atop the space theoretically set aside for the godaime, and see the yondaime's face in profile - beneath the stern visage of his predecessor ... and successor. In line with them was the academy, and past that eventually the wall.

Further, much harder to see without a ninja-trained eye, one would find the clearing where Hatake Kakashi had just had an unexpected and unpleasant encounter, that being the reason he sat atop the mountainous ridge that bordered one side of Konoha. He sighed moodily at the yondaime's face in profile. He knew he was sentimental, at times, given his propensity to brood while staring at the memorial stone or other things, but he was still a ninja.

Knowing that his teacher wasn't truly able to hear him, he didn't utter a word of the thoughts he wanted to share with his mentor.

'Your son will be a strong ninja.'

That was true, beyond a doubt. The boy had power, unquestionably.

'My first proper meeting with your son was me punching him out.'

Unfortunately, that part was true, too.

He pulled his book from his pocket, flipping to the prologue and trying to lose himself in the text, which he'd read many times before. He hadn't finished it yet. He kept stopping at page twelve, right when Akito finished thinking about his surroundings and should have gotten to the point of the story.

This attempt didn't even get past the first page. How could he try and set things right, after that? He'd actually somewhat hoped for a chance to train the boy - the chance to pay back some of what he owed to his teacher... And undoubtedly, Naruto was going to receive a merit promotion, after that.

But, damn it all, he'd reacted on impulse, not properly thinking things through! He was former ANBU! He'd actually known about Naruto's situation all along, and what had he done?

He forced his eye to the text once more. "There is a place in the mountains," he began, before another fit of self-disgust prompted him to react without thinking.

He flung his book away from himself, into the night sky over Konoha.

'Shit,' he thought dully, watching it soar away, arcing out a respectable - ninja-flung - distance, vanishing between a row of apartment buildings below, halfway across Konoha. That was going to haunt him, and now he didn't have any kind of meditation focus at all.

Maybe he could find Gai, pick a fight ... the annoying loudmouth was reliable for that much, at least.

His restless attempts at thinking were interrupted when he detected a kunoichi bounding up the cliff-side below him, telltale orange book cover in one hand. He resigned himself to the inevitable apology he'd need to use, and forced himself to calm.

He did allow a small blink of surprise when Mitarashi Anko topped the rise and gave him a stern look, one eyebrow raised as she tossed the book in the air lightly, then caught it, saying nothing.

"My apologies," he said, rising to his feet and sweeping her a polite bow, putting a smile on his face behind his mask. "I was so excited, the text simply leapt from my hands!"

"I'm sure," she retorted. "Is this your idea of how to meet women?"

He gave a false, rueful chuckle, then scratched the back of his head nervously. "Maybe I've happily stumbled across a secret technique?"

She stared at him with a particularly piercing, amused stare, her pupil-less eyes boring into him, making him wonder uncomfortably how deeply into him she saw.

"Hmm," she mused, tucking the book into her jacket. "Tell you what. Come down to my apartment, and I'll show you something more interesting than silly stories, huh?"

He stared at her in real surprise, then covered with another nervous laugh. What an unsettling woman ... no wonder she had been made a special jounin. "Oh, no that won't-"

"I didn't really make that a choice, did I?" she asked, raising her other eyebrow, her grin suddenly becoming much more predatory. "I have this thing, you see, about people chucking books at my head when I'm going home after the day's over. So you can either come with me to my apartment, or..."

Kakashi was not amused. He kept his expression genial and prompted, "Or?" after the woman trailed off, managing to sound innocently curious.

"Or I'll tell Gai you're so distraught, you are doubting your worth as his rival," she determined. "I can see you're in a funk over some shit you're not going to talk about, so since neither of us get our favorite vice, and because - as mentioned before, you chucked a book at my head - we're going to settle for a lesser vice for both of us."

Damn it. That cold hearted bitch... This was not what he wanted right now.

"You can keep your mask on, and you don't have to listen about why I'm pissed," she added, giving him a flat stare, hands on her hips, her jacket flaring wide and revealing most of her figure to him.

"I think you already mentioned something about a book and your head, but I'll admit, I can't quite recall the connection at the moment ... maybe if it had been mentioned more?"

"Suit yourself," she said with a shrug, turning around, marching back down the cliff. "I'm sure Gai's up at this hour..."

God damn it! That same low blow! Wasn't she supposed to show creativity by searching for some other weak point to use against him?

"Well ... you'll give me my book back afterwards, won't you?" he asked lightly.

"Good boy," she said in answer, briskly leading the way down the cliff.

"I'll let you get away with this once," he protested half-heartedly.

"If you throwing books at my head becomes a regular occurrence, I'll stick you like a pig and suck you dry," she said so absently, Kakashi wondered if she even realized she'd said it.

God damn it.

Shikamaru liked sitting near the front of the class, since it automatically suggested that he was eager to learn, and likely an apt student. His true hope was that it would mean he would be assumed to be knowledgeable and capable, and thus be overlooked when the teacher called someone out. If he could just ... sort of coast by until he'd had a fair number of C rank - or maybe even B rank missions under his belt, then he'd be fine.

Until then, he knew that the vast majority of what he had to look forward to once he was assigned his jounin and teammates - and given what his father said, he had no doubt over who his teammates were supposed to be - was busywork and protocol training. That's most of what D ranked missions were about. Being taught how to go through the motions of checking in with the Hokage, following mission plans, demonstrating capability and teamwork...

He just didn't want to deal with the playing part. Once it was time to be a ninja, he was ready. But in the training, doing good enough was all that was required.

He didn't have anything to prove, really, and that suited him just fine... After considering the graduating roster, he did wonder about the odd man out they were going to run into, though. Teams usually were in groups of three students. Since his own teammates were set, and to the best of Shikamaru's knowledge, there was only one jounin in Konoha who had a sharingan, there was really only a question of where everyone else would go.

Ostensibly, Sasuke would be under Kakashi, and then ... how to balance that team? What other kekkai genkai and special techniques could be assembled into strong teams with the remaining numbers? He amused himself putting together teams in his head, trying to imagine how the combinations would work.

It would have been easier if Naruto had passed, he thought idly, glancing at the other students in the classroom. Otherwise, one team was going to be one man short. His eyes happened to catch on the clock, and he frowned, sitting up straighter. It wasn't like Iruka to be late... Hmm, he seemed to have taken some special interest in Naruto. Perhaps he was consoling the boy for his failure?

Before he could pursue that thought, the door opened, and Naruto, the very boy in question, stumbled in, looking over his shoulder before turning his gaze forward, his gaze bleak. One hand went up and absently adjusted his headband... His hitai-ate of genin rank? But...

Well, whatever. That meant that Naruto would round out the missing man, making the teams more balanced. That was probably good. Shikamaru's gaze went immediately past the strangely subdued Naruto, to a ninja that Shikamaru wished he didn't recognize - Morino Ibiki. ANBU's best torturer and Shikamaru's father frequently met to discuss 'work', and some of those discussions had happened around him. The torturer was incredibly watchful of his tongue - just like Shikamaru's father - but never made any attempts to hide what his function was.

Why would he be here?

The question was quickly given voice, Sasuke shooting Naruto a dark, skeptical look and snorting, "What's the loser doing here? This is for graduates."

Naruto's response, rather than to rage and snarl was to give a pointed, mildly forceful, "Fuck off."

Sasuke gave a surprised look at the response, but before he could say anything else, Ibiki cleared his throat loudly. "Take a seat, Uzumaki," he said tersely.

Naruto nodded wordlessly and retreated to a seat near the back - almost as far as Shino, but away from Sasuke.

"Naruto! You shouldn't be a jerk to Sasuke-kun!" Sakura declared, finally recovering from her shock over Naruto's behavior.

"Oh, get over it," Kiba barked, before turning to the teacher. "But, seriously - if you're a sensei, what happened to Iruka-sensei? Why is Naruto here?"

"Umino Iruka will not be returning," Ibiki said simply. "I have team assignments for all but nine of you. When you are given your assignment, you are dismissed - you can return here in two days to meet with your jounin-sensei." At that, he began tersely listing team numbers and assigning students to their groups. When he was done, the nine remaining students were Sasuke, Sakura, Ino, Choji, Kiba, Hinata, Shino, Naruto, and Shikamaru.

Turning to them, Ibiki said without preamble, "Your assignments have not yet been finalized, due to an unexpected roster change. Last night, while performing his duty to Konoha, Umino Iruka was slain in combat by a traitor to the Leaf."

The already still classroom suddenly became much more silent.

Sakura, already standing, wobbled, almost falling back to her seat, but shaking her head furiously. "W...what? What about Mizuki-sensei? Isn't he Iruka-sensei's backup?"

"He was the traitor," Naruto answered, his voice carrying despite being muffled in the crook of his arm. All eyes went to the orange-clad boy with his face hidden on his desk. "I killed him."

Before anyone could challenge the claim, the scarred torturer confirmed, "Killing a chunin-ranked enemy ninja in service to Konoha conferred a merit graduation - furthermore, Umino Iruka's last act was to confirm Uzumaki's qualification as genin, and ask that his own hitai-ate be left to him." Ibiki paused, looking at the ceiling for a moment, as though to gather his thoughts, then leveled his uncompromising gaze across the class.

"Team assignments-"

"There's a pretty obvious reason why Naruto would have known that," Sasuke interrupted, his gaze dark as he laced his fingers together beneath his chin. "The loser obviously watched Mizuki attack Iruka-sensei."

"So?" Naruto snarled, raising his head and narrowing his eyes. "You think it was fun?"

"Sasuke," Kiba said slowly in warning, while Choji began to look anxious.

"No," Sasuke said, narrowing his eyes, but not otherwise moving. "It just means that if you had been better, Iruka-sensei would not have had to die."

"Wait!" Sakura yelped, eyes widening. "Naruto's responsible for that? I don't want to be on a team with Naruto in that case, either! No matter what!"

The part of the desk Naruto's arms rested on suddenly collapsed into splinters, and a pair of sharp blue eyes gave Sasuke a piercing, furious glare.

Immediately, the entire classroom erupted into argument, even Hinata timidly trying to say something, though her words were lost in the brassy boom of Kiba's argument that Sasuke didn't know what he was talking about, and the lower rumble of Choji's opinion that Naruto hadn't actually said that. Naruto raged at the Uchiha heir silently, Shino observed quietly from his spot, hardly having moved the entire time the prospective genin had been assembled, and Shikamaru, watching from the front row, wondered when his gaze crossed Shino's glasses, if their eyes had actually met.

Everything clicked together, then. The three who were silent, naturally.

He wasn't going to get to wait until after he was well on his way to chunin, after all. This was going to be an especially terrible day, and if Sasuke's argument carried weight, Shikamaru probably wasn't going to end up on a team with Ino and Choji after all.

This was more than troublesome; this warranted a genuine curse.


"Quiet," Ibiki said, not raising his voice in the slightest, but instantly silencing the class as all eyes went to him - even Sasuke's and Naruto's. The scarred man raised one hand to his head and swept off his bandanna, prompting a squeal of fright from Ino, and a shudder from Sakura, who finally collapsed back into her seat. His scalp was lined with particularly hideous scars, probably a warning of what happened to ninja who made mistakes.

"In the course of your careers as ninja, you will naturally face death. I expect that this fact should be ingrained to your educations long before your graduation yesterday - be it in the classroom or on the battlefield. You will be expected to take lives." Turning his gaze squarely to Sasuke, the scarred man added, "It is especially unbecoming to be frightened and jealous of a fellow ninja because he has crossed that milestone before you. It is as undesirable a trait in a ninja as destroying school property in response to an insult." For the last his heavy gaze swept to Naruto, who bowed his head and looked away.

The Uchiha heir's face reddened as he looked away sharply, glaring at nothing.

Ibiki instead put his bandanna back and turned his attention across the classroom, lingering on Shikamaru for a moment.

Not good. Very not good.

"Before we continue ... raise your hands, if you've been exposed to death. If you have ever seen a life end."

Almost everyone raised their hands, some sullenly, some obediently. Shikamaru's hand was up with the others. Only Choji had his hand down, now looking at his classmates nervously.

Glancing at Kiba, Ibiki asked, "Nin-dogs?"

The boy nodded, his expression tight, forming into a scowl and growing defensive.

Ibiki said nothing further, not questioning the validity of Kiba's opinion. Instead, his gaze went next to Sakura, studying her. "And you?"

"W...when I was younger, I saw a horse break its leg from a runaway cart," Sakura answered hesitantly. " couldn't walk after that, and so..." She shrugged.

Shikamaru realized it was now inevitable. There was nothing he could do to avoid it.

Ibiki grunted. "Alright. Have you seen a life taken in combat? In a life-or-death struggle, not merely the course of nature? If not, hands down."

Kiba and Sakura lowered their hands.

Ibiki surveyed them all in turn, nodding slightly at Sasuke, and not questioning. His gaze lingered on Ino for a moment, and he raised one eyebrow a very slightly distance. She quickly offered, "Uh, when I was smaller, my father took me on a training trip ... there was a bandit attack, and..." She shrugged, looking mildly uncomfortable.

Ibiki nodded again, turning to Hinata.

"W...when I was small, a kidnapper from Kumo came for me," Hinata said quietly. "My ... family protected me, and killed the man to save me."

Ibiki nodded at that, then adjusted his stance slightly. "How many of you have taken a life?"

Hinata, Sasuke, and Ino lowered their hands.

God damn this was going to be a terrible day.

"Well," Kiba said quietly, looking between Shino, Naruto, and Shikamaru - the three with their hands raised, "you three should make a fine assassination team, then."

And there it was.

So much for taking it easy and kicking back.

"I'd say it myself, but Naruto already did it so well," Shikamaru said in a quiet drawl, before the orange-clad boy could do something in response. "So, Kiba? That thing that he told Sasuke to do? Go do that."

The boy with the red markings on his face blinked, stunned. Well, fine, then. He hadn't really wanted to do this, but what did it matter? Whatever else he'd been in class, Naruto was capable of killing a chunin - he would be an effective teammate, at least in that regard. With Shikamaru's own ability to lock things down, and Shino for scouting and various utility functions...

Yeah, he didn't need anything to do with the rest of the class. Shikamaru dropped his hand to his side, rose from his seat, and moved to the back of the classroom, choosing a spot midway between the wary Naruto, and the still impassive Shino. The other two who had taken lives.

Ibiki seemed completely unimpressed. "What you should take away from this, is that if you intend to be ninja - at some point in your careers, when I ask that question, all of your hands should be raised. If you are not prepared for that, you are not prepared to be ninja." The door opened again, and Ibiki turned to look, seeming just as unimpressed at the pair of jounin who entered.

Asuma was fairly familiar to Shikamaru, as was Kurenai. He didn't miss the way Kurenai looked immediately upset to see Ibiki in the classroom, or how Asuma's eyes narrowed, as though he had just sensed that something was very, very wrong.

"Ibiki," Asuma said, frowning slightly. "A word, please?"

The burly man wordlessly left the room with Asuma, leaving Kurenai as the only authority in the room. "So, then..." the red-eyed woman trailed off as she blinked, surveying the class one more time. "It seems that you were informed of the fates of your teachers, then?"

Shikamaru and the others managed nods.

"Right, well... There will be a memorial for Umino Iruka tomorrow. Given circumstances, you won't need to meet with your jounin until the day after. At any rate, in the face of everything-"

She cut off as Asuma's bellowing voice loudly snarled something - but for all its volume and how much it rattled the newly-minted genin, it was so indistinct as to be incomprehensible.

"Well," Kurenai said somewhat hurriedly, her expression not changing, "despite that - we've pulled together and finalized your teams. You'd like to know that before you leave, right?"

Shikamaru pursed his lips, wondering if Kurenai had any idea how much hell was about to break loose. If Shikamaru understood things - and he was fairly confident he did - he was supposed to be placed on a team with Ino and Choji. Logically, the only teacher who could train Sasuke was the legendary 'copy ninja', Kakashi. At an educated guess, though it wasn't by design, Shino and Naruto would each be intended for other teams, too.

It would start with Sasuke and Naruto being placed on the same team - he just knew it. Being right all the time was starting to lose its luster.

"First of all," Kurenai said, scanning across the students, "Team Seven - Uchiha Sasuke, Haruno Sakura-"

She broke off as Sakura unleashed an annoyingly loud squeal of delight, even as Ino released a tortured wail.

"-and Uzumaki Naruto."

Sakura's cry immediately cut off with frustration.

"I refuse," Sasuke said flatly, just as some of Naruto's upset began to slowly transform into hope. "You have to trust your teammates to watch your back - the loser let Iruka-sensei die. That girl and I have both already explained that we want nothing to do with such a teammate."

Yes, being right was rapidly becoming less fun.

"Yeah!" Sakura chimed in happily. "Someone else can be on our team!"

"Like me!" Ino interjected quickly.

Kurenai pursed her lips, frowning.

"I...I wouldn't mind being on a team with Naruto-kun," Hinata managed to offer, her voice trembling. "I could ... trade, maybe?"

"That is not how this works," the jounin sighed, shaking her head. "Your teams are picked based on a balance of abilities-"

"So you're sticking a total loser with the two of us," Sasuke interjected, shaking his head. "I know I placed best in class, and Sakura at least has good grades - but now he's getting placed with us on account of his pity qualification?"

Shikamaru had seen it coming, and been quietly preparing the jutsu. Even so, he only just barely managed to snare Naruto in the shadow bind before he could leap from the ruined remnants of his desk at Sasuke. Naruto's wordless snarl of rage drown out his own quiet announcement of a successful technique. Shikamaru gave a pointed stare to Shino, who he trusted was silently observing everything that happened, even as the shadow-user's body started to tremble from the effort of restraining Naruto.

He was freakishly strong for his size! It wasn't hard to imagine that strength tearing Mizuki apart!

"I believe this point to be evident," the Aburame boy remarked suddenly, startling the other genin as he spoke for the first time that day - the first time ever, when he hadn't been called on, actually, "but I disagree with your judgment. The combat award that Naruto-kun has earned is significantly more meritorious than any amount of bookwork or classroom exercises.

"While it is true that historically the lowest-rated student in class was paired with the highest-rated student to strive toward a balanced team, that stricture seems to no longer apply. In point of fact, this would make your hypothetical team imbalanced by including the two theoretically most capable students in the classroom along with the only proven one."

Though he looked puzzled by the specifics, Naruto managed to determine that Shino was standing up for him, and his struggles lessened. Relaxing, slowly releasing the bind, Shikamaru threw in his lot with the orange-clad boy. Best be on good terms with them both; something he was glad that Shino seemed to have grasped as well.

"That seems accurate to me," Shikamaru agreed with the insect-controller. "I think that Naruto's gone through a lot more trouble to prove himself a capable ninja of Konoha than either of his teammates. What a pain..."

"Don't talk down to Sasuke-kun!" Sakura whined.

"O-kay," Kakashi said cheerfully as he strolled into the room. "Sorry I was late, but there was this thing and... Anyway, never leave home without a good set of lock...picks..." He trailed off, surveying the genin remaining in the room. "R...right. I'll be the teacher for team seven-"

"Suddenly, I don't want to be on that team anymore either," Naruto said with disgust, glaring at the legendary copy ninja with undisguised scorn. "I like Sakura-chan, but I don't think dealing with Sasuke's worth it - especially since you're the asshole that punched me out when Iruka-sensei was trying to tell me his final words!"

"I thought I hit you hard enough that you wouldn't remember that!" Kakashi said brightly. "But that doesn't mean we can't be friends, does it?"

"Teams are built on trust, huh? Well ... some day I'm going to be Hokage - and to do that, I'll need a team with a better teacher than you, and a better teammate than a certain person! I don't think I want to learn anything you could teach me... I'm ready to kill and die for Konoha if I have to - but not with you!"

For a heartbeat - since he was specifically searching for it - Shikamaru was certain that he saw genuine, deep hurt in Kakashi's visible eye, before the jounin chuckled, one hand going behind his head in a practiced, disarming gesture... "You know what? I think these team assignments might need a second review after all."

Kurenai gave him an unimpressed, disbelieving look. "Asuma's going to be pissed," she muttered, in a voice that probably wasn't meant to be overheard. Realizing she'd spoken too loudly, she shrugged, giving up the pretense of maintaining an aloof demeanor. "It's on your head." After that, she marched out through the door.

"Haa... Haha," Kakashi chuckled weakly, surveying the genin, now currently confused as to what their assignments were. "Well-"

"Why not let us choose our own teams?" Shikamaru suggested, shaking his head. "Simple and easy - Shino-kun, Naruto-kun, and myself will be fine. You'll have to train a certain kekkai genkai that we don't have, so everyone's happy because we'll need a different teacher." He noted the way Naruto started at that, the surprise and relief in the other boy's eyes... That was just sad. But as far as Shikamaru could tell ... he really was probably one of the stronger ninja in the room. Especially with how badly he'd strained Shikamaru's binding jutsu.

For a moment, Kakashi looked like he was considering it. Then he shook his head. "No promises - but you've been through something unfortunate recently, so let's set aside today's anger, calm down, and approach this all over again after the memorial service. I think we all might feel better after we made peace with these troubling events. It's dark right now, but remember, it's always darkest before the dawn!"

With that, the jounin offered what appeared to be an unreasonably happy smile behind his mask, and then vanished in a whirl of leaves.

"I don't want to be on a team with the loser," Sasuke muttered quietly, to no-one in particular.

"Oh, shut up," Kiba grumbled. "If you weren't being such a whiny princess, we would have gotten our freaking teams today!"

Shaking his head, Shikamaru turned slightly to Naruto. "Plans for later?" he asked.

Naruto started again, breaking away from the argument forming between Kiba and Sasuke, shaking his head at Shikamaru. "Not really," he mumbled. "Maybe ... Ichiraku's..."

Shikamaru wasn't sure what that was. "Alright. Hey, Shino-kun, what do you say us marked veterans go grab some lunch and talk about prospective team assignments, huh?"

"That is agreeable," Shino remarked, rising from his desk.

The trio was halfway to the door before Ino asked, "When you get a merit promotion, do they just let you get away with breaking school property like that?" She seemed more amused than genuinely insulting.

"What are you referring to?" Shino asked mildly in return, before Naruto could retort.

Ino's cheeks turned slightly pink, and she looked annoyed, gesturing to the desk that Naruto had smashed- Except ... now it wasn't smashed anymore. The section that Naruto had broken apart was intact again. At a thought, Shikamaru glanced to the floor, watching a stream of small insects retreat into the taller boy's coat. A twitch of his fingers caused Shikamaru's shadow to stretch out and cover the insects, but he didn't bother binding them, simply amused by how easily they disappeared in the slightest bit of shadow.

Well, then again ... they were ninja bugs.

Shino adjusted his glasses slightly - Shikamaru suspected it was to conceal a self-satisfied smirk ... but then, if he had the skills to reassemble a desk in a room with eight other genin, and not one of them noticed it, he'd probably smirk like that, too.

What the hell. They might make a fine team after all.

Hopefully, he could be right about that, too.

Kakashi really wished he had managed to turn Anko down. In the end, he was a coward, running from what he should have dealt with a long time ago. For all of his complaints, for a very brief period, he had managed to truly clear his mind. He was able to share in something that...

It wasn't perfect, and it didn't really shine, but it had been nice, and afterwards, for all of her attitude, she was quiet and thoughtful, and soft, and she smelled like flowers and soap, and...

And, well, he'd overslept.

And, evidently, when no one could find him at his usual haunts - or his home - no one thought to check Anko's apartment.

Probably because, as he reminded himself once again, he shouldn't even have been there. Net result, since the Hokage was busy attending all of the paperwork surrounding Mizuki and Iruka's deaths, it had somehow fallen to Ibiki of all people to talk to the children. Children!

There was a damn good reason Ibiki was kept out of the sight of genin until Konoha was hosting a chunin exam!

And thanks to that, Kakashi's earnest mistake had now snowballed into a truly colossal fuck-up. He brought his attention back to the present, where the sandaime was staring at him with a particularly unimpressed look, his visage slowly creasing to show greater displeasure as he ruminated on what had resulted.

After a long minute of thought, the sandaime leaned back into his chair and gave a few thoughtful puffs on his pipe. "I want you to know," the Hokage said gravely, without preamble, "that I hold you responsible for the damage done today. Last night ... I can understand what a former ANBU agent's reaction is to seeing an academy student with a forbidden scroll, and two dying chunin. But this, Kakashi?" He shook his head in disappointment that stung Kakashi almost as much as the silent times that he spent looking back on his failures.

"I don't know what to do to fix this," Kakashi admitted quietly. "And I don't know if I can fail my teacher with regards to his son again."

Some of the angry light in Sarutobi's eyes faded at that. "You had better not," the Hokage said with surprising mildness. "Work with Asuma and Kurenai - those are nine of the most promising genin we have. The nine we expect will actually complete qualification. It's your responsibility to find some way to get them working together. We will discuss this again after the memorial service."

Kakashi knew a dismissal when he heard one, and accepted this one gratefully. The old man had a knack - he could make a powerful ninja feel lower than a worm with only a few careful words.

Outside of the tower, he spotted Anko, looking relaxed and far too satisfied with herself for his tastes. She spotted him and gave him a faint smirk, changing course from wherever she was headed to align with him.

Just perfect. The one person he could most easily blame - other than himself.

"Anko," he said in a level voice.

"Kakashi," she returned. "Hmm. You look like hell."

"It may have something to do with last night," he returned.

"You're a legend for being late; can't pin that on me," she countered without hesitation. "Come on - the dango stall I couldn't make it to last night is open now. I'll treat you."

"Thank you, but I've had enough problems thanks to-"

"Before you finish that comment, let me just say that those who live in ninja houses should not throw books."

"It was a paperback," he said, more tersely than he would have liked. Why was she suddenly so keen on needling him, anyway? "If you're any kind of ninja, I'm sure it wasn't dangerous to you."

"I've seen a man killed with a book," she countered. "It was amazing, actually - the book was opened, and then, you know, it acts like a kind of buzz-saw - one paper-cut per page, and- Yeah, that could really have harmed my delicate kunoichi complexion! That book could have crippled my infiltration abilities!"

"I'd like it back, now, if you don't mind."

"And I'd like you to be a bit more responsive," she countered, uncaring of the fact that they were surrounded by other ninja - and especially ANBU - that were on their way in or out of the tower. "We don't always get what we want without a little blackmail and arm-twisting. We're going to get dango, then maybe you can tell me what precisely prompted your little soft-cover missile of hardcore death."

He almost snorted at the absurd remark. He was starting to genuinely hate this woman...

"I can buy another copy of the book," he said with mild resignation.

"But you won't ... because I'm pretty sure I can string you along until I actually finish reading it - another day or two, at most."

He shouldn't have been surprised, but he was. "Fine," he decided tersely, gesturing her to lead the way. "But I'm going to need some sort of binding promise you don't spread this around or try and use it against me."

"Pinky-swear?" she offered, grinning and holding one hand up, smallest finger extended.

He just hoped she had as much of a migraine as he did, trying to sort everything out.

Aburame Shino tried to follow the precepts of his clan in his pursuit of becoming a successful ninja. One of his family's prized attributes was an interesting, if unintended side-effect of tending the kikaichu - namely a love of logic and a suppression of emotion. The kikaichu could easily be disrupted by uncontrolled emotion at some levels - pheromones, increases of blood pressure, heart rate...

And so, in the process of being the best hosts possible for their partner insects, the clan as a whole seemed cold and methodical. Shino was keenly aware of the fact that this put a divide in how he was perceived by other ninja in the academy, but his clan had cultivated that as a strength, too.

In truth, he considered himself and Nara Shikamaru to be very like-minded in many ways, even if the shadow-user had cultivated a lazy, uninterested persona.

Looking at his potential allies logically, Shino was confident that his abilities would find an adequate role in any combination of the remaining genin. He had a hard time spotting any one of the remaining eight genin that hadn't been assigned a team yet and thinking he couldn't use his skills with theirs to better effect.

The major setback on that front was the fact that he had been warned by his clan that the standoffish persona he and his family wore would make forming solid bonds difficult. He also was completely aware of the fact that a great many people were made uneasy by the Aburame clan's ability to host the insects within their own bodies - and the fact that they generally did not go to much real effort to hide their connections.

A special jounin making that divide between Shino and his classmates more obvious was not a helpful step forward.

So, as one of the three that had been singled out by the unfamiliar teacher who told them that Iruka was dead, he followed quietly a half-step behind Shikamaru and Naruto as they strolled down the street.

Shikamaru had his arms up, fingers laced behind his head as he stared contemplatively at the sky. Naruto stood to one side, walking with him, but shooting regularly confused, wary glances at the Nara boy.

"My parents figured that I might want to hang out with my teammates," Shikamaru said, glancing at Naruto sidelong. "So, they gave me some money for lunch - of course, they also thought that I'd be teammates with Choji and Ino, so unless you two can out-eat an Akamichi, I can cover all of us, probably. So, what are you in the mood for?"

"I like ramen," Naruto answered quietly.

Shikamaru gave a thoughtful grunt at that. "How about Senzo's?" he suggested. "It's a noodle house not far from where I live - I know they serve ramen, too, but I'm in a mood for udon."

Naruto nodded, seeming surprised again by the gesture, then looked back curiously to Shino.

Shino offered a short nod, explaining, "I have no complaints." In point of fact, he'd brought a boxed lunch from home - but if Shikamaru was trying to arrange a team-building exercise, he could ignore it for the time being - there were plenty of kikaichu with his clan, so even if it went bad, it wouldn't go to waste.

"I think that must be Shino's way of saying he doesn't like udon or ramen - but noodles are still okay."

Unused to opinions being assigned to him when he offered few of his own, he answered, "I prefer yakisoba."

"See?" Shikamaru asked, dropping his hands and offering a wry grin, shrugging at Naruto.

"You're being weird," the orange-clan genin decided, looking at Shikamaru askance.

"He is being logical," Shino countered. When Naruto turned inquisitive blue eyes back to him, Shino clarified, "As has been iterated before, the life of a genin, or that of any ninja, is in the hands of his teammate. Shikamaru-kun is attempting to win our friendships and encourage bonds of trust between us - so that when the times comes, and it's a life-or-death struggle, we will save his life - as I will likewise expect him to do for us."

"Fuck," Shikamaru muttered in the same wry voice, giving Shino a newly appraising glance, shrugging again as he grinned. "Yeah, okay - he saw right through me."

"You're trying to get on my good side so I'll save your life some day?" Naruto asked doubtfully, shooting Shikamaru a suspicious glower.

"Well, take that sentiment - which I believe Shino-kun here actually agrees with - and compare that to your other options in class. Who would you rather be on a team with - the guys who tell you honestly that they're approaching the problem like ninja, as an obstacle to be overcome... Or maybe a certain Uchiha, who cares more about nursing his hurt pride?"

"Indeed," Shino agreed. "It is ... strange that we be put together merely because of certain incidents in our past." After a pause, he admitted, "I found the reactions of some of our classmates quite disappointing. That unknown jounin-"

"Morino Ibiki," Shikamaru supplied helpfully, rounding a corner and gesturing to a restaurant down the block. "He's a special jounin."

"He's in charge of interrogating people," Naruto added quietly.

Shino adjusted his glasses to mask a facial twitch. This Ibiki character sounded like someone he should be aware of. Given Shikamaru's father's position, it was a given he would probably be peripherally aware of most of the important people in Konoha. After all, Shikaku was the current jounin commander.

Shikamaru gave Naruto a thoughtful nod as they walked through the entrance of 'Senzo's', a noodle shop that seemed to be doing slow business, most of the lunch crowd already dispersed. An aged man that Shino guessed to be the proprietor looked up and called out a greeting that died in his throat as his eyes tracked across the three.

Either not noticing, or not caring, Shikamaru raised a hand in greeting, calling back, "Yo. Table for three, Senzo-san?"

Shino's attention was wholly absorbed by a somewhat unexpected phenomenon. "I- We're ... about to close up, actually, until dinner," the man said, not trying to conceal his derision for Naruto.

"Huh," Naruto grunted, his expression hardening, though he said nothing.

Shikamaru released a tiny sigh. "Troublesome," he muttered. More loudly, he said, "Senzo, I've been coming to this place for years - you don't close in the afternoons. What's going on, really? Some sort of yearly cleaning?"

Shino realized that Shikamaru was playing a careful game with words, and that Naruto could jeopardize whatever strategy the shadow-user was trying to establish. Before Naruto could follow up with the smart remark his face said he was intent on forming, Shino clapped one hand on his shoulder.

The orange-clad boy started, twisting free and turning around, regarding Shino suspiciously. "Shikamaru-kun's negotiation may take some time," he said very quietly. "A snack may not be uncalled for."

When Naruto's expression shifted to confused, Shino reached into his coat, finding the inner pocket where he stored his lunch easily. Shikamaru glanced back, then turned his full attention back to Senzo as the old man shook his head. "No ... just ... as I'm getting older, it's harder to keep the shop open all hours..."

Grudgingly, Naruto nodded and accepted a rice ball after Shino unwrapped the meal, wolfing it down voraciously. Come to think of it ... Shino had no idea what Naruto's presumed time with Ibiki was like. He may not have eaten since the previous day.

"And it's only because you're feeling old and infirm, not because, say ... you wanted to ensure that if Konoha were attacked by ninja, everyone would know that you didn't welcome them to your establishment, right?" Shikamaru pressed.

"S...Shika-chan," the old man said shakily, "I have no problem with ninja! You know your family has eaten here for years-"

"So, my family is welcome," Shikamaru continued, nodding. "But for whatever reason ... my prospective teammates are not?"

"No!" the man protested, glancing fearfully at Naruto. Shino could tell the glare was not intended for him ... though, to be fair, any number of restaurant owners were uncomfortable around his clan. That might not be entirely unexpected. But what issue would this man have with Naruto? Perhaps a legendary victim of one of Naruto's pranks?

"So my teammates are welcome?" Shikamaru asked, giving the man a dubious look. "As it is, you're being really confusing. See, all of us here are genin - that means ninja. If there's some legitimate reason you have to treat any of us differently, I'd really like to hear it. Because from the lowliest of genin, to the highest ranked jounin commander - we are all ninja. We are willing to kill and die for this city. And you ... don't want to sell us food because...?"

Senzo worked his jaw for a moment, then his expression hardened, darkened. "I will say no more of this," he declared. "We are closing, and I can not serve you."

Shino handed the rest of his lunch to Naruto, countering whatever outburst he had planned with a need to gobble down the last of the rice balls. "Our time is not well spent here," Shino noted.

"The time of any ninja," Shikamaru agreed. "Well, whatever. I don't really get it, but if Senzo doesn't want to serve ninja ... I'll spread the word - let every ninja know they shouldn't eat here."

Senzo winced at that, visibly stung, but said nothing else. Shino allowed a smile, hidden behind the collar of his coat. The man's business would not do well in a hidden village if there was a reputation of ninja avoiding it. The three left silently, until they reached the street, and Shikamaru unleashed a quiet curse.

"Change of plan - let's do a practice D rank mission," the shadow-user decided.

"What's a D rank?" Naruto asked, either distracted by the idea, or wanting to change the subject away from the old man's reaction to him.

"You should have paid more attention in class," Shikamaru noted. "First of all - tell me what you did to piss that old man off? I never knew Senzo had it in him to be such a prick. What brought that on?"

Shino wasn't sure it was wise to pry so soon, but acknowledged a certain curiosity of his own.

"Something from when I was really small," Naruto muttered, looking away. "I'm not joking about this, but it's an S-rank secret, and I don't want to talk about it."

"That man is a civilian," Shino observed. "He should not know an S-rank secret."

"I agree," a new voice broke in, all three boys turning in surprise to look at Shikamaru's father. He glanced sidelong at Senzo's, where a pair of ANBU were walking through the doorway along with a grim-faced Yamanaka Inoichi. "Now, Shika-chan, you were looking for a place to speak with your future potential teammates and have a peaceful lunch, weren't you?"

"Yeah," Shikamaru agreed, though his attention was entirely on Senzo's shop.

The blinds over the windows went down, and shortly after that, Shino lost contact with the few kikaichu he had left in the entrance by habit. Shikamaru sighed and shook his head, while Naruto blinked in confusion and Shino felt a sudden loss of interest in the restaurant.

"Anyway ... Naruto-kun, Shino-kun, this is my father-"

"We've met," Naruto and Shikaku said simultaneously.

Shikaku wasn't as scarred as Ibiki's, but the tracks of some ancient injury still marked the right side of his face, coloring and twisting slightly when the man smiled. "Yes ... well, sorry about that trouble this morning, Naruto-kun." He turned his attention to Shino. "And you must be Aburame Shino-kun, the genius of your clan."

Shino wasn't sure what to make of that. He nodded, bowing in greeting and acknowledging, "I recognize you by reputation, even though we have not formally met."

"Well ... now we have!" the man said brightly. "So - you kids look like you could use some food." He gave an apologetic smile to Naruto. "I know what you had for breakfast wasn't very good."

Naruto nodded eager agreement at that remark.

"Alright - as Shikamaru has probably already determined, your best course of action is to go home and do a mission for my wife. Run along, now!"

The three quickly turned and did as they were told, shortly reaching a sizable home. "Wow!" Naruto gawked, staring up at the second floor from the street in disbelief. "You live in an estate!"

Shikamaru shrugged. "Only place I've ever lived - I have nothing to compare it to," he said dismissively, pushing open the entrance and stepping inside the grounds.

Shino wouldn't call it an estate by any means. A home, absolutely. It had a yard, and a low, private wall (somewhat meaningless, in a ninja village, so only for decoration), and was stately enough... But it was smaller by far than the Aburame clan holdings - and those were nothing compared to an established clan estate, like that of the Hyuuga or Uchiha.

"It is very nice," he offered.

Shikamaru grunted, stopping at the doorway to the house as it opened, and a somewhat annoyed looking woman - though, Shino could recognize many of Shikamaru's features in her - peered out, sending the most dire parts of her gaze over their shoulders before settling on Shikamaru. He saluted smartly, announcing, "Team possible, reporting for assignment."

"Here's your mission," she answered, handing him a tightly rolled scroll, and a small stack of ryo. "I want receipts."

"Got it," Shikamaru replied, taking both items and turning on one heel. As the door shut, he began in a somewhat lecturing tone, "Before a ninja can go on rank C missions - generally, the lowest rank of 'real' missions - they have to prove to their teachers and the Hokage that they have teamwork skills and can hold it together. So, D rank missions are basically charity work that genin in training, or some ninja who have pissed off the Hokage, end up getting assigned."

"Charity work?" Naruto asked, annoyed.

"Hey ... you want to be Hokage some day, right?" Shikamaru asked, unrolling the scroll and glancing across it. It was a list of grocery supplies.

"What does that have to do with this?"

"There's a saying about that," Shikamaru remarked absently, pulling a pen from his belt pouch and crossing 'fresh onion' off the list.

"'The journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step,'" Shino quoted.

"Huh?" Naruto asked in confusion, glancing between Shikamaru and Shino. "I don't get it! And why did you cross something off the list we didn't get?"

Shikamaru instantly shot a nervous glance over his shoulder, towards his distant home, then shook his head and turned back to the list. "Because I don't like onions, and for a few weeks they're out of season, meaning I can claim I didn't find any and she'll probably buy it."

"And in other words, if you wish to become Hokage, you must become many other things, as well," Shino added. "Your first step on this journey is to rise from the academy to the rank of genin - which you have almost accomplished. Now you must prove your candidacy and become a certified genin."

"What do you mean 'certified'?" Naruto wondered. "We're genin, aren't we?"

"I think in your case, you might be, thanks to the merit thing," Shikamaru acknowledged. "The rest of us, well ... out of the twenty seven students that graduated yesterday - in the end, only nine will be allowed to retain genin rank. The rest get sent back to the academy, or get passed on to non-specialist roles. Or, I suppose, eight, as it works out.

"In any case, Konoha tradition is to only accept the one third of all students that are judged most capable. The others are given roles as non-specialists, typically. It doesn't get tossed around much, because they like to make it sound like only the best of the best become ninja at all, but there is another tier of less remarkable ninja to make up our numbers."

"On another limb," Shino noted, "if your merit promotion does not guarantee you genin status, then your first goal should be to guarantee your rank. In this way, you will progress on and eventually become capable of attaining chunin ranking, and then perhaps a special jounin, or simply straight on to jounin. From there, though hard work and dedication, perhaps you will achieve your goal."

Naruto gave him a very strange look at that. "You're not saying that I can't be Hokage?" he asked quietly.

Shino personally found the prospect highly doubtful. But then, he'd also never expected that Naruto would be capable of killing a chunin - one of their teachers, no less - when he turned out to be a traitor. "I do not know if you can," he answered honestly. "But it will take hard work and dedication, if it is to happen. As things stand now, I would truly expect that the only superior choice among our immediate peers is Shikamaru-kun."

"Thanks, but no thanks," Shikamaru replied, rolling up the scroll and turning towards a small market district. "I'm already doing more than I'd like to, trying to pull us into a team. Think about it ... even more responsibility?" He snorted. "So, yeah - you're going to have to really work at it, Naruto, since I don't want the job."

Naruto was even more taken aback by that, leaving all three in silence until they finished shopping.

While Naruto had originally held high hopes for making the rank of genin, things had taken an unexpected turn after Mizuki's betrayal came to light. He didn't relish reliving that evening, but he guessed his teammates were going to ask. Really, given how sensible the two of them them were, he felt he had to at least try and match that seeming maturity.

It really sucked that the three of them had gotten lumped together because they had taken lives, but they were trying to make the most of it - and hadn't mocked his dream of becoming Hokage. He had wanted to be with Sakura, more than anything... But he couldn't imagine that, not now.

That bastard jounin and Sasuke together? Add in the fact that Sakura could be, well ... mildly standoffish when Sasuke was around, for some reason... A team of people either indifferent, or straight up out to get him?

Or Shino, the quiet, surprisingly wise-seeming bug-user, and Shikamaru, the alarmingly honest and methodical shadow-user. He wasn't positive, but he was pretty sure it was Shikamaru who had frozen him stiff when he was about to kick Sasuke's ass. As much of a pain as that was, he realized it was another of Shikamaru's logical bids at 'building teamwork'.

And what did he really have to complain about? He could prove he was better than Sasuke by kicking him around the classroom - probably - but Shino had then gone and said that a merit promotion was superior anyway. So ... all that Shikamaru had really done was save him the trouble of actually doing it, and maybe giving himself more trouble with his teachers.

Alright, his pride had taken worse blows than that throughout the years. He didn't like being locked down like that, but afterwards, given Shikamaru's dedication to the three of them getting some sort of actual lunch together, it wasn't worth complaining about. Plus, Shino's weirdly subtle remarks were making him feel stupid - no reason to act really stupid.

Shikamaru explained a bit more about D rank missions on the walk back to his home, and once they delivered the groceries he led the trio around the back of his house, where there was a small private training ground. Beyond that was a gate in the wall, leading to the street in the direction of what Shikamaru offhandedly explained was the private section of forest that his family owned outside of Konoha.

The shadow-user had bought himself some dango on the grounds that Naruto and Shino had already had a snack, and was absently tracing a regular, even grid into the ground with the skewer.

The stern woman that Naruto still hadn't been properly introduced to seemed to be Shikamaru's mother, and had raised an eyebrow at Shikamaru's claim that there was no fresh onion. Other than that, the three were left alone while she prepared a meal of some sort.

Normally, he would have been more curious about the magical process that transformed the mundane ingredients they had collected into food. As it was, he expected that the other boys were about to break their silence and ask him to tell his story. Well, he could do that, he supposed...

"Let's get to know one-another a little better," Shikamaru suggested suddenly, done marking off his grid. He glanced at the other two and said, "I'll go first."

Clearing his throat, he gave a polite nod of his head to the others and began, "My name is Nara Shikamaru. I like sleeping, games of strategy that require minimal effort, and reading. I don't like bossy women, onions, and people who don't think. My dream is to become a successful but unremarkable shinobi, and retire after passing on the secrets of my clan." He nodded at Shino expectantly.

Shino nodded in return, continuing, "My name is Aburame Shino. I enjoy reading, practicing techniques in my family's style, and encountering new, rare forms of insects. I do not appreciate intolerant people, and those who cannot recognize that every life, no matter how small, is part of a greater whole." After a pause, his brow furrowed behind his dark glasses slightly, and he explained, "I do not like people who step on bugs. My dream is to become a successful shinobi - perhaps in ANBU - and develop new techniques that will be used by future generations of my clan."

Recognizing that it was his turn, Naruto bounced to his feet, determined to try and meet his new teammates with the same civility that he had been shown. "I am Uzumaki Naruto! I like ramen, making new friends, and learning new jutsu, even if I mess up a lot at first. I don't like stupid jerks, or people who knock me out without even letting me explain what happened. My dream is to some day be Hokage, but I think you already knew that."

Shino and Shikamaru nodded, Shino turning to look at the other boy's grid thoughtfully. "White or black?" Shino asked Shikamaru.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow before glancing at his grid and said, "White - no offense, but give yourself a four stone advantage."

Naruto had no idea what that meant, but Shino gave another nod and touched four of the intersections in the grid with a fingertip. A small cluster of the boy's kikaichu ran down to cluster there, leaving dark circles where he touched. "What's this?" Naruto asked, genuinely intrigued.

"This is go," Shikamaru said, glancing at Shino. "It's a strategy game I happen to like." He spent a few minutes explaining the rules as he and Shino played. Naruto couldn't help but think it looked incredibly dull, himself.

When Shikamaru touched the grid, a small cluster of kikaichu obligingly ran in from the edge of the game-board, clustering in place with wings spread, making ... not quite white circles, but brighter, slightly shiny spots. "I am not very skilled at this game," Shino acknowledged, when Shikamaru seemed to outmaneuver him, capturing kikaichu left and right. "However, this application of kikaichu was taught to me by my clan at a young age; this is considered a basic chakra manipulation exercise."

Well, that made it somewhat more interesting again. Naruto doubted he'd be picking up bugs to live in his body anytime soon - they really wouldn't like the other resident, he was pretty sure. Still ... he'd never had a clan teacher to give him additional guidance. That seemed like it might have been a nice edge.

"I will share something in confidence, here," Shino continued, not breaking from the game he was losing. Of course, now that Naruto knew that winning or losing didn't really matter, as much as practicing chakra control, he thought he could see why. "My clan techniques are not a kekkai genkai, but I can trust you with some secrets, due to the fact that it may as well be.

"Specifically, we become hosts for our partner insects shortly after birth. Periodically throughout our lives, certain adjustments must be made before we can achieve fine control over our kikaichu."

"I think I know where this is going," Shikamaru said dryly, nodding. "Forfeit? New match - six stones?"

Shino waved a hand over the playing field, and all of the insects retreated, except for enough to mark six dark spots. "To continue," Shino said, seeming unperturbed, "one of these adjustments to allow fine tuning of the kikaichu is a price that must be paid in blood."

"I thought they ate chakra?" Shikamaru asked, raising an eyebrow, already placing light spots on the grid.

The Aburame boy did not nod. "Until the host is mature enough, kikaichu are by nature parasitic. They consume the host's blood as well as chakra. Regular ingestion of the blood of a more mature host is required to prevent the kikaichu from harming their host initially. The training to adapt the females - the generators of our kikaichu eggs - requires that they feed on non-Aburame blood and the chakra of their host simultaneously. It may take several attempts at this to correctly train the females and ensure their traits are carried on through all successive generations.

"From that point on, the relationship becomes fully symbiotic. The kikaichu recognize that their life-essence and well-being is connected to their hosts, and submit themselves to a finer degree of chakra manipulation."

Shikamaru broke from the game and stared at the sky for a moment. Naruto tried to understand what the boy was saying, but it went well over his head.

"So ... in order to keep your clan insects from eating you, you needed to regularly drink blood from your clan members?" Shikamaru asked.

Shino nodded confirmation.

"How much blood?" Naruto asked, morbidly curious.

"A few drops suffice," Shino answered. "The point of all of this is the following:

"After certain clan rituals, which I will not disclose, at the age of eight I was taken on a training trip with my parents. We dressed as poorly defended traders and brought a bundle of silk-wrapped goods to the border of fire country."

"At a guess ... looking for bandits or outlaws to attack you?" Shikamaru asked, raising an eyebrow.

Shino nodded confirmation again. "We were indeed attacked by bandits, as expected. With the aid of my parents, and to satisfy the requirements of my kikaichu." He hesitated, not looking back to the board when Shikamaru touched another intersection. "I would never be able to become a genin if I was dependent on my clan to supply me the blood I needed to restrain my kikaichu. It is in fact likely that I would become a liability to the village at large should they become uncontrolled.

"So, from a logical standpoint, I know why it was done. And it would seem that the life of a bandit is the smallest thing, and if not truly in self defense - we are, after all, ninja - but it is no small thing to take a life." He paused again, scowling slightly behind his dark glasses. "While not entirely senseless, my younger temper was permanently cooled by this realization; as a shinobi, I will take lives if I must.

"Killing for power and personal gain is a wrong thing. It is unfortunate that the secret of my clan's power has its roots in something like this..." He shrugged apologetically.

"This saves me some trouble," Shikamaru said with a matching shrug. "While my family techniques don't have those ... interesting side-effects, the power of shadow-extension has an almost identical requirement. I was nine, but it was the same thing. Go with the parents, dress up like poor traders, find some unlucky bandit, and yay, new power." He pursed his lips, shifting about and disregarding the game that had fallen by the wayside. "I don't think this is actually that unique, all things considered.

"There's a really good possibility that other ninja out there have to do the same thing ... I think the bigger point is that you not enjoy it. Did you catch Ino's remark about a bandit on a training trip? I bet you that's close to the same thing - but maybe she only needed to see it instead of actually doing the killing.

"It sort of makes sense, too. We're going to be exposed to that. Going through the academy, making the rank of genin, and then freaking out over the first time you kill someone? All that wasted effort - years of schoolwork, weeks training with a jounin, a team being dissolved because one member dropped out..."

Naruto blinked in realization, considering what Shikamaru had said. That was an entirely different type of edge than what he'd been thinking.

"Interesting," Shino remarked, looking thoughtful. "Hyuuga Hinata's story may have a similar foundation?"

"I think that was a legitimate failed kidnapping," Shikamaru mused. "Then again, I can't actually disprove your theory. So, possibly. There's no sense beating ourselves up about it - there have been kids who made chunin before the age we made genin. Like Ibiki said, it's probably not like they got there without killing a few people."

Naruto had to admit that was probably true. He really, really didn't want to relive that moment again... But they'd just said when they'd first killed - and why. He was confused about the morality of it ... but then, they were ninja, weren't they? Wasn't it okay that he'd killed Mizuki?

He cleared his throat, prepared to begin explaining when Shino abruptly raised one hand, palm towards Naruto in a warding gesture. He was taken aback for a moment and scowled, but then decided to say nothing, and just watch the Aburame boy.

A few heartbeats later, Shino dropped his hand to his side, and just after that, Shikamaru's mother appeared, carrying a tray laden with bowls. "Alright," she said, glancing across them, "be careful, the bowls are hot."

"Thanks," Shikamaru said first, rising to his feet and taking a bowl, wincing at the heat. He quickly settled back to his original seat, balancing the bowl on his knee. Shino likewise collected a bowl and reclaimed his position, and Naruto belatedly followed suit.

Somehow, Naruto realized, toughing out the heat and savoring the aroma, Shino had known she was coming, even though he hadn't heard a thing. Huh. That was something else.

She set the tray on one side of the makeshift game-board, courteously avoiding any of Shino's bugs, leaving a tea pot and three cups behind. "You enjoy your food - oh, but while I'm thinking about it, Naruto, do you have a formal uniform?"

"I... N...not yet," he admitted nervously. That had been on his to-do list, honestly, but there was that whole ANBU detention and questioning thing. And after that, well, he wanted to eat, like Shikamaru had suggested.

"Alright. Shika-chan, before Naruto leaves, loan him your spare."

"Got it," Shikamaru agreed, already digging his chopsticks into his bowl.

Once the woman left, Naruto peered into it, salivating over the donburi before digging in himself. A few minutes later, after he'd managed to demolish the meal, he announced, "That was really good."

"Yeah, at least she can cook," Shikamaru remarked between bites, not even halfway done with his. Naruto wondered if he'd think that way about his parents, if he had them.

Shaking his head, he set his bowl near a wandering group of Shino's bugs, so they could help themselves to the dredges - the last bits of rice and sauce. "Ah, alright. So, after I failed the test yesterday, Mizuki uh, told me to steal a scroll from the Hokage - said it was a secret graduation test...

"I pulled it off - I stole the scroll from the Hokage, even though he tried to stop me. After I got away, since it was a forbidden art scroll, I ... you know ... immediately tried to learn the first one, right?"

Shikamaru blinked, not looking away from Naruto. "Probably that's what I'd do," he admitted after a moment, nodding.

Shino wordlessly continued to eat.

"A...anyway, then, uh, well, Mizuki hit Iruka-sensei with a shuriken ... um... Iruka-sensei actually ... threw himself in the way to ... protect me. Then Mizuki said that the blade was poisoned, and I was going to die next, so..." He gave an unsteady, shaky laugh. "I used my new technique on him."

"Can you tell us about this technique?" Shikamaru pressed, curious.

Naruto nodded. "I can't teach you. Uh, your father actually explained it to me - it takes a ton of chakra, which is the main reason it's an A-rank technique. Supposedly, most genin or academy students that tried to use it would probably die from chakra exhaustion. It's called taju kage bunshin no jutsu."

"So," Shino remarked, pausing his meal for a moment, "unable to use an E-rank technique ... you instead mastered an A-rank version in one night?"

Naruto nodded, narrowing his eyes. "Don't believe me?" he challenged, hopping to his feet again.

"I do, actually," Shikamaru said, shaking his head in negation. "They don't just hand out hitai-ate. So, how's this different from a regular bunshin?"

Swallowing, and kind of wishing that Shikamaru had just picked a fight to relieve some tension, Naruto explained, "The kage bunshin is solid. It can run around and do almost anything you can - if I get better at it, then it can even take a light hit or two before it disperses. But the important thing is ... when a bunshin is dispersed, you receive all of that bunshin's experiences.

"But, see, I didn't... I didn't know that. I just realized I had a kunai, and then I created, you know ... one thousand four hundred and thirty seven bunshin, and I wanted them all to try and kill Mizuki because he had poisoned Iruka-sensei. And I thought, well, that would all be fine, because I wouldn't kill him, the bunshin would..."

Oh, but it hadn't worked out that way.

"So... Each bunshin stabbed him once or twice before being dispersed... And I kind of ... got a bit overwhelmed, and wasn't really sure what was going on - I was just receiving every single bunshin's experience as it ... sunk the blade in, thinking, hey, I'm just a bunshin ... I don't have a reason to feel bad about killing him, and anyway, Mizuki's really an asshole for trying to kill Iruka-sensei..."

He shrugged, grabbing a cup of tea and sipping at it.

"That sounds ... unpleasant," Shino allowed.

"Huh, yeah... But that's an A-rank technique for you. I can see why it was on a 'forbidden' scroll. Still ... that's amazing, that you were able to steal something from the Hokage, and learn that technique in a single night," Shikamaru remarked.

"Y...yeah," Naruto agreed managing a weak smile. "I am pretty awesome. Anyway ... after that, while Iruka-sensei was trying to tell me something, and the poison..." He trailed off and offered a shrug. "Then that bastard jounin - whatever his name is-"

"Hatake Kakashi," Shikamaru supplied. "The legendary 'copy ninja.'"

"Well, whoever he is, he punched me out the second he showed up, and I woke up in a detention cell with Ibiki, the Hokage, your father and... Some other guy, I forget. Anyway, they asked me all kinds of questions about what happened, though the Hokage kept telling me that I wasn't in trouble, they just wanted to hear my side of the story." He shrugged.

"Honestly, I never would have guessed that Mizuki was a spy," Shikamaru admitted. "I can imagine why they were so surprised."

"Including Hatake Kakashi," Shino agreed.

Naruto gave him a doubtful look.

"But, really, the applications of being able to send bunshin out ... you said you can create hundreds of bunshin?" Shikamaru asked.

"Oh, yeah," Naruto said lazily, forming the seals for the B-rank version, popping two more of himself into existence behind him. They rose to their feet and moved to spar, mimicking blows instead of risking immediate dispersion. "Uh, that's just the weaker version, since I don't really want to remember hundreds of me just standing around in the yard.

"Plus, they said not to 'overdo it', whatever that means..."

"And that still takes a substantial amount of chakra?" Shino asked.

"I was told that this version's chunin-level," Naruto acknowledged.

Shikamaru nodded, musing, "Huh... So, here's a question ... how long can you make them last?"

Naruto shrugged absently, while the sparring bunshin looked kind of curious. "I'm not sure. Your father and the Hokage kind of explained it to me - it sounds like normally it can last up to half a day, maybe up to a full day as long as it doesn't get hit, or disperse on its own to report back."

"They're autonomous?"

"I don't know about that - but they can do things on their own. They're pretty much copies of me, except that they know they're copies. If I learn them, they can even produce jutsu - when you perform the technique, your chakra is even split between all of them."

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence as Shino and Shikamaru both stared at Naruto.

"I think our team is unstoppable, if we play our cards right with that," Shikamaru noted. "Think of the practical applications... Me, I'd probably end up with a dozen lazy bunshin just sitting around all day, but you... Wow."

"What's so awesome?" one of the copies asked, before the other punched it, sending an annoying flood of memories, the entire record of its brief awareness back to Naruto.

"That was stupid," Naruto chided the remaining bunshin, which dispersed, replicating the previous surge. He grimaced sourly. "I just called myself stupid."

"Alright, there's room for improvement - but the potential is there," Shikamaru said, shaking his head. "With you learning that so quickly, and able to make bunshin... Think about it - you could send a bunshin to the library every day and have it read an entire book. At the end of the day, when it started to get hungry - poof, you remember everything it read right in time for dinner!"

"I don't really like to read," Naruto complained.

"Work smarter, not harder," Shino advised.


"You could make a hundred of your bunshin - easy for you, you say - and have them practice taijutsu," Shikamaru suggested. "You learn everything they do, right?"

"You probably only get so much out of fighting yourself," Naruto said doubtfully. Though, he did have to admit, polishing his taijutsu... That did actually sound useful. If he had better taijutsu... Or, heck, any other jutsu he wanted to get better at.

"More importantly, if you can create hundreds of bunshin to practice taijutsu, you can spare a few for the library," Shikamaru pointed out. "Think of the advantages of some day receiving an emergency mission to an unfamiliar country. You send a team of bunshin to the library, and they spend a few hours researching, while you're already running hard towards your destination. They finish their research and report back to you - and even better, anyone you told in advance can just go down to the library to warn you if there's an update, or something else you need to know! By the time they're done, you know almost everything the village can figure out, and you're a day's travel towards your destination!

"What Shino's saying is, making a hundred bunshin to beat someone up is powerful, and takes a lot of strength. Using a few dozen bunshin to cleverly gain intelligence and practice skill ... that makes a better ninja."

Naruto was astounded. Shikamaru was making complete sense. Plus, well... It wasn't like he was happy with the thousands of memories of stabbing Mizuki to death. Maybe sacrificing a few bunshin to the library kami every day would help cloud that annoying blot. Damn, he had no idea he was really that powerful!

"And a better ninja may some day be a superior Hokage," Shino agreed, snapping Naruto out of his daze. "Even as a teammate, your bunshin represent opportunities to help us train, as well. With dozens of bunshin participating in combat exercises, you will have a supreme potential for insight into the flaws in our taijutsu, as well as any poor errors in our strategy.

"You might theoretically even create small teams of bunshin to act as antagonists against us in training exercises. If I correctly understand my father's occasional remark that one should look 'underneath the underneath,' then the true strength of this jutsu is not the ability to create an army, but in much more sophisticated applications of your own strengths."

Naruto was utterly floored. He wasn't settling for being on a team with these people ... they treated him like a teammate, and an asset simultaneously. Like a real ninja. They looked like they expected the same from him. As much as it galled him to admit, Shino was right that Shikamaru would be the better leader among the group - at least for the moment. If he was taking those small steps the bug-user was talking about, being just a plain genin before being a team captain, and then working up to chunin...

Yeah, that was fine. Plus, if Shikamaru and Shino were going to come up with better uses for his bunshin than he had, he'd be an idiot not to listen to them. "I think I'm going to like this team," Naruto decided.

Shikamaru nodded, saluting with his teacup before finishing it off. "Hoping that we actually get to be a team," he acknowledged.

That, in addition to everything else, cast an aura of thoughtful quiet over the group.