Motivation Chapter Seven

by Brian Randall

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

Away from the other genin, Sakura decided that instead of going home, she'd use the evening at Konoha's library. Almost everyone else seemed to be doing something in the way of extra training, after all. She supposed she could have done something with the others, but Sasuke hadn't, either, and she liked the idea of being free if he suddenly decided he'd want a partner.

The library had served her well, but she'd recently been neglecting her academic studies. All of the field work and lecture from their sensei squad was well and good, but she had frequently found out quite a bit of good information there in the past. If even Naruto was hitting the books, well...

At the library entrance, she spotted a strange, unfamiliar looking jounin - he was wearing what looked like a green spandex bodysuit, boots the same color as Naruto's jacket, and with his dark hair in an extremely unflattering bowl cut. He had both eyebrows raised in obvious interest as he listened to a more more normal looking chunin, wearing his hitai-ate as a belt.

"So," the chunin said, "I would have taken care of this myself, but with the new assignment, I really don't have the range..."

"If you're confident it would be good for Lee," the jounin allowed. "How dangerous of a target is this man?"

The chunin grimaced, tugging on his dark braid thoughtfully as he stared up to the sky with gray eyes. "His taijutsu's decent; I'd guess ... mid-chunin skill range. Other than that? He's an amateur with masterwork enten-hari, so ... pretty dangerous," he finally said, turning to look at the jounin, his gaze very briefly flicking across and meeting Sakura's-

More than enough warning to stop staring, she realized, picking up her pace and jogging past.

"Hmm," the jounin grunted. "Alright. Tenten will like having those in her collection. It might be good for Neji, too."

The chunin probably said something in response, but they were lost to distance as she jogged up the steps to the library, making a note to research 'enten-hari' at some later point. What the heck was a 'sun-needle'?

She quickly made her way to the card catalog, humming to herself as she found four likely books on tactical communication. She looked around for an empty seat - there were a handful of people in the library, scattered among the sparse collection of tables and chairs.

There was a brief pause as she glanced at a younger, somewhat pretty pink-haired girl in an orange dress sitting at one of the rearmost tables...

Her hair was shorter, and she seemed to suddenly become faintly nervous upon seeing Sakura... Okay, yeah, she was fairly confident she knew what was going on here.

She made her way to the seat next to the other girl, setting down her own books with a quiet thump and glancing at the reading choice of 'Field Tactics for Larger Squads' by Namikaze Minato. Sakura recalled that book fairly well; the yondaime had a gift for writing things clearly and concisely. The girl could have chosen a much more difficult author for the same information.

Confident that she wasn't going to be making a fool of herself, she turned to the younger 'girl' and asked, quietly, "Your henge is good, but why would a girl that age be reading that book, Naruto?"

The younger version of herself whipped her head around in alarm to stare at her with wide eyes. Huh. Naruto remembered what she looked like back then so well?

Weird. Kind of cute-

Well, she had thought she'd overheard something about 'library' bunshin. This also explained how he of all people found time to read!

"," the bunshin managed, blinking. She- He Sakura corrected herself again. He looked at a clock and then shook his head. "I...I need to put these books away; I'm supposed report to the boss in a few minutes."

"Alright," Sakura said with a shrug, turning to her own heavy tomes. She was pleased to have figured out who Naruto had been, among the crowd, but since they weren't in a fight ... on the extremely small chance that Sasuke might come by, she didn't really want to hang out with him.

Never mind that as far as she knew, Sasuke had never, ever been to the library.

She quickly lost herself in scanning through the texts on communications, making notes on a sheet of paper idly. Probably an hour had gone by, and she'd picked out all of the details she needed from two of the books before she paused to stretch, realizing with surprise that Naruto - looking suspiciously like a younger version of herself, still - was still watching her.

"What?" she asked, somewhat peeved that he was borrowing her image as it was.

"J...just watching you study," she- He said, mildly awed.

She frowned. "Shouldn't you have reported back by now?" she asked.

The bunshin shrugged evasively. "I can report back later," he answered. "The others already did, so the boss knows why I'm still here."

"The 'boss'?" Sakura wondered, turning back to her notes. Hmm ... there wasn't much benefit to trying to make a private code language or a series of communication tricks to hide from Kakashi. Enemy ninja, maybe, but he would undoubtedly be able to pick it apart anyway. Pre-arranged ciphers and rotating codes would probably be for the best.

"Uh... Well, seems better than saying, 'the real me'," the bunshin offered.

Sakura nodded absently; that did make a degree of sense. She started pulling together a quick-reference table of simplified code-words on another sheet of paper.

"You're still here?" she mumbled, glancing sidelong at the smaller 'girl' next to her.

Naruto nodded. "You read really fast," she said, shaking her head.

"I'm skimming," Sakura answered, frowning. "You have to read enough to infer the meanings, then you can just read every other line and fill in the blanks."

The younger version of herself looked scandalized, her eyes widening. "There's a shortcut for reading?" she breathed.

Sakura actually turned to face Naruto. "What exactly are you doing here?" she wondered.

"I've been trying to study," the smaller figure replied defensively. "Oh! Hey- Hinata-chan is helping me study a little, but maybe you can, too?"

The larger girl was about to snap at Naruto's bunshin to leave her alone when she stopped to consider.

Naruto's henge was nearly perfect, and Sasuke wasn't likely to come by, anyway. That thought in mind...

"There's no such thing as a free lunch, Naruto," she chided him, setting her pen down. "If you want to help me, then maybe in exchange I'll teach you a thing or two."

"Okay!" the smaller girl said enthusiastically.

"Great," Sakura decided. "Here's what you want to try and figure out: There's this kind of weapon called an 'enten-hari'. Even in the hands of an amateur, this is considered a dangerous weapon! See if you can find out what it is, and where it comes from." Before she could ask anything else, Sakura warned, "That's all the clues I'm going to give you."

Naruto's eyes grew wide as she stared at Sakura before hesitantly nodding. "Finding out about a weapon," she mumbled, rising from the table, taking her book with her. "Okay!"

Sakura shook her head, turning her attention back to her own work as the bunshin trotted eagerly between the shelves. That should keep Naruto busy, and maybe also answer that annoying question at the same time.

When Ino had told Naruto she didn't know him well and wanted to go on a date with him to know him better, she had really just been following Shikamaru's idea. She'd even further planned on trying to weasel out of it...

But thanks to Naruto, she hadn't gotten blown up once training with Kakashi - even better, Naruto seemed to accomplish the impossible, and remove Kakashi from 'exploding tag' mode to 'lecture' mode. The blond insisted that wasn't an improvement, since the other sensei already did that constantly, but Ino found herself really appreciating the lack of concussive force.

That thought in mind, she decided she would stick the date out, and more than that, try to actually be Naruto's friend. She didn't want to date him, but as an ally... That it seemed to annoy Sakura was just an added bonus. Spiting him to try and score points with Sasuke didn't seem to be working very well - and it certainly wouldn't have gotten her any help against Kakashi.

Probably, it wouldn't help in the 'real' ninja world, either.

She gave a nervous glance around for explosive tags at that - one Naruto caught and copied anxiously for a moment before they both relaxed.

"I guess Bastard-sensei really is keeping us on our toes," Naruto allowed with a lopsided grin.

"I'm not exactly falling over myself to thank him for it," Ino returned.

He nodded fervent agreement.

"Okay - let's get this started. We're skipping some steps, so ... usually dating works by you asking a girl out on a date, right? And then she says 'yes', so you decide where to go and what to do. Since we didn't have time for that, let's go to a restaurant that you like or something; some place we can get just tea, since we already ate earlier."

"Okay!" the bunshin agreed cheerfully. "Ah ... how about going to Ichiraku's for ramen?"

She wanted to complain that they'd just left a noodle place, but bit that back. "That should work for practice," she allowed. "But in the real dating world, girls like to be taken to some place amazing!"

"What if I don't have that much money?" he asked worriedly.

Ino shrugged, following his lead when the blond turned down a side-street. "There are other options," she admitted. "Most girls really like a guy who can cook, even a little. And sometimes you can find small restaurants that are actually really good, just not well known! So, those places might work, too."

"So, maybe this tiny okonomiyaki place I found that's surprisingly good?" Naruto hazarded.

"Well ... I'd have to see it, but that actually sounds alright," she admitted. "It's cozy? You're friendly with the owner?"

"Yeah ... she's pretty cool," he agreed. "But actually, that sounds a lot like Ichiraku's anyway!"

"Really?" Ino wondered, as Naruto gestured ahead of them, to where a pair of customers were just leaving the ramen stand.

He jogged ahead slightly, waving to the old cook behind the counter.

"Oh, hello, Naruto," the cook called out cheerfully. "Ah, another of your friends?"

"Yeah!" Naruto confirmed happily. "Ino-chan is pretending to go on a date with me!"

Teuchi blinked at that, looking slightly confused. "Pretending?" he wondered.

A heartbeat later a young woman emerged from the kitchen with a wide grin, holding a teakettle in one hand, and a pair of cups in the other. "Heya, Naruto!" the woman behind the counter cheered. "Did I hear that you're here on a date?"

"We're training," Ino clarified. "Practice for real dates."

"Yeah," Naruto agreed. "I guess I gotta do some D rank training dates to get up to the better ones. Oh! Ino-chan, this is Ayame-nee."

Ino couldn't help but be a little miffed that she'd already been given a 'D' ranking as a date, but admitted that it wasn't like she'd been especially flattering to him.

Then again, maybe it was just because he was taking things seriously? In that case, she should, too.

Both of the ramen bar workers stared for a long moment, before Ayame finally gave a small sigh. "I suppose the ninja life is a hard and ... different," she offered.

"Er ... yes, well, what can I get you?" Teuchi asked, still somewhat dazed.

"Just tea," Ino decided. Strange ... she'd never really thought of Naruto as having other friends before. Then again, he'd managed to get on the good sides of many of the other genin - pretty much all of them except for Sasuke and Sakura. Well, the pink haired kunoichi was on her own. Ino was starting to suspect that Naruto, herself, and Sasuke would make a pretty amazing team.

With Naruto focusing on defense, Sasuke handling the offense, and herself focusing on information gathering and controlling strategic targets of opportunity...

She couldn't imagine what Sakura would offer in her place.

It would be hell to pull off, though, as things were at the moment. It sounded more promising than getting stuck with lazy slobs or creepy bug people. The main trick, of course, was to get Naruto to apologize for picking a fight with Sasuke.

Something, Ino decided, once Ayame handed the pair of them teacups, that she could handle on a later date. In the meantime, getting on Naruto's good side wouldn't include giving him bad information; he had to learn at least enough about dating to keep Sakura away from Sasuke.

"Okay," she warned, "listen closely, but this is what girls like..."

Across the counter, Ayame raised one eyebrow, the traces of a smile coming to her lips, while Naruto and - surprisingly enough - Teuchi watched Ino attentively.

Reading Anko's ANBU file had not really made Kakashi feel better about the entire affair. Add in the fact that he was down to one good contact still among the ANBU, thanks to recent restructuring... He thought that he might have strained that association asking for the paperwork he had.

His attempt to reconnect with the other recently demoted ANBU hadn't worked out quite as well as Kakashi had hoped. The man who had worn the horse mask had been friendly enough, but his wife... She'd had a number of pointed questions about everything Kakashi didn't want to discuss - except Anko, anyway.

And wasn't that a depressing revelation; he could try and tell himself that genuine relationships hadn't been quite so important because he'd been in ANBU. Except ... one of his oldest remaining ANBU associates had been married while in ANBU. That seemed to utterly demolish one of his better arguments for his situation. It wasn't even a special dispensation ... any ANBU's non-ninja persona could do as they wished, as long as they didn't attract undue attention.

Thwarted on that front, he found himself standing before the door to Anko's apartment once again.

He'd read the file, sure, but it was hard to really let some of those things click.

Anko's personality ... weathering what she had...

He remembered the last ninja war, and she would have, too. But his view was from the front ... not in the depths of Konoha's war laboratories. He came into his own on the battlefield, but the crucible of her formation made him feel ashamed of himself for questioning her.

He was the one who had failed those who relied on him.

She was the one who had been failed by those who she had relied on.

Now - now he could see where that dim shine came from. And just when she was starting to show that she might be able to trust and rely on him...

...he'd gone behind her back and betrayed that forming trust.

What, exactly, was he going to tell her? He hadn't thought a thing through, struggling under the fact that - once again - he'd failed. The door opened, revealing the reserved, somewhat suspicious expression of the woman in question as she stared at him.

Abruptly, she smiled, gesturing him inside. "Welcome back, dear," she purred.

After Naruto's bunshin dispersed, Shikamaru crossed his arms over his chest and shot a glance to Shino. For his part, recovered from the shell-game and kawarimi practice, the Aburame boy looked thoughtful.

"I think we're hitting a dead end on research into his background," Shikamaru mused. "At least, through conventional channels."

"What approaches remain unexplored?" Shino returned.

"Death records are kept in a vault with relatively weak security, all things considered," Shikamaru said, almost offhandedly.

Shino actually lowered his face enough to stare at the Nara boy over his dark glasses. Shikamaru couldn't help but smirk at that.

"Even if security is low, breaking in could easily jeopardize our genin status. However, I happen know that there is a vault that shares a wall with that vault ... which is unsecured."

"Ah," Shino responded. "Byakugan."

"I can't think of anything else," Shikamaru admitted with a shrug. "Nothing else I'm comfortable risking, at least."

"And what is contained in this unsecured vault?"

"Land ownership records," Shikamaru answered, making a dismissive gesture. "As the Nara clan holds some territory outside of the city, my father goes there every so often. I'll see about finding a reason to go there, and figuring out how to distract Naruto at the time."

"Then it falls to me to inform Hinata." Shino paused, thinking things over and calculating the other things that Shikamaru had not said. "I also will be required to cocoon myself in your image for this journey to the vault."

"That's right."

"Hinata's kekkai genkai would surpass a normal henge."

Shikamaru nodded.

Shino adopted a somewhat sour expression behind his coat and glasses, then shifted to look like Shikamaru in- Not quite just a puff of chakra, though that had been there, too... There was a rippling, creeping surge of kikaichu.

"You think that might fool a Byakugan?" Shikamaru wondered.

"Probably not," the Aburame in henge replied, heaving a tiny sigh, grimacing as one hand pressed against his forehead. "Troublesome."

The shadow-user allowed himself to crack a small smile. "Naruto's henge is getting pretty good. Maybe ask him for some tips?"

"Indeed," Shino agreed.

With that, the pair nodded at one another, and the Aburame boy's henge dismissed with the same strange rippling and minimal puff of chakra. Turning smoothly away, Shino marched around the corner of the Nara house, towards the front gate. Shikamaru looked up at the sky again, once he was alone.

He didn't like going behind Naruto's back like this. It didn't feel right.

On the other hand, he couldn't fully judge Naruto's true potential if he didn't know exactly what secrets he might be hiding.

And just a little bit, though he wouldn't even share this with Shino ... he was scared of whatever it was that the Uzumaki boy had hidden, if it was more powerful than the 'forbidden' kage bunshin.

If she'd come on a bit too strong, Kakashi didn't seem to notice. He'd given her the same look he always did, more or less, then moved to take a seat on her couch, sitting on just the edge, with his elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasped together.

She pursed her lips and moved to sit next to him. What ... was the jerk thinking of breaking up with her because of her file?

"What's going on?" she asked dubiously.

If he thought he could get rid of her that easily, well, she could make the Hokage's order's very uncomfortable for him!

"Anko," he said slowly, with careful deliberation, his lone visible eye going away, to the coffee table. "Listen ... I ... think that we maybe started off on a very awkward foot ... but for the first time in a very long time, I wonder if it might have been a very good thing after all?"

She was caught off guard, unbalanced by that comment. He ... wanted to stick with her? After reading her file?

Her position in the couch shifted as he swiveled, bringing his knees onto the couch as he straightened his back up, dropping his hands to his lap. "Anyway ... wanting this thing to be good, I think that I need to be honest - I asked a friend in ANBU to hand me some information on you." He shrugged, looking glumly apologetic.

She felt her indignation strangely quashed by this sudden brazen confession. She was still furious with him, but now had no idea how to launch into a tirade against him. The woman groped for words or an argument, struggling to find something to say in anger, coming up strangely blank.

"To be fair," he said, looking at the cluttered magazines littering the coffee table, "I asked for nothing more than general information. Nothing secret. I didn't want to dig so deeply..."

Her anger flickered, and she suddenly felt very tired.

"So ... what did you find out?" she wondered.

"I found out about your teacher." He admitted, "I hadn't realized who it was."

"Oh," she managed, very quietly. "I... I thought..." What had she thought, anyway? That Kakashi was being an asshole...

Well, no, he was still an asshole.

"You could have asked me!" she snapped.

"And I should have," he admitted. "So ... I had to tell you that in honesty."

He didn't even flinch when she found the energy to backhand him, just snapping his head back and falling off the couch from the force of the blow. The copy ninja landed, not quite in a heap, but not exactly crouched for reprisal.

Obviously, he'd let her hit him.

"Asshole," she managed, irritated she couldn't summon anything more colorful.

After a heartbeat, she added, "Your ANBU friend gave me some dirt on you, too."

"Ah," he replied from the floor, not really seeming to react otherwise.

"About ... your eye and your father," she elaborated.

"Ah," he said again, nodding slightly. "I have ... been somewhat less than forthcoming."

"That's ... it?" she asked, still feeling robbed of confrontation. "We just ... get that out with?"

Still not moving from the floor, Kakashi suggested, "I hear normal couples have make-up sex after their arguments."

She snorted at that, rolling her eyes. "Let's do that other thing where we just sleep together. I hate talking."

He rolled to his feet, looking remarkably undamaged, but unmistakably grateful.

"And tomorrow, before breakfast, we can exchange all those painful little details together," she added.

He stiffened for a moment, then gave an accepting nod.

"Also, I went over the paperwork I got on you with Kurenai. Convinced her to give you a hard time for going behind my back."

"No wonder you were in such a good mood when I came home," he sighed.

She grinned at the way he said 'home' instead of 'back'. Fine, then; he may be an occasional asshole, but for now, he was hers.

Plus, she'd have the option of killing him in his sleep - assuming he didn't do it to her first. This thing with being more open ... maybe it would work after all.

...why did she want it to work so bad? Why was she willing to forgive him, after all that time trying to really properly stoke her resentment?

After training, Hinata had been glad that Naruto's chakra - reinforced as always by the constant pulsations from the seal, centered as it was directly above his hara - brought him back to his feet first. He explained that his bunshin had all reported in, and then, just like she hoped, he hauled her upright and helped her stagger into town - strangely enough, to the same okonomiyaki stand she'd gone to with Shikamaru and Shino previously.

The dark-haired former ANBU officer was just taking down the shop's sign for his wife when she spotted them, insisting they come inside anyway.

They had a handful of okonomiyaki while the chef gently corrected a great deal of what Naruto had learned, once it was explained that they were on a practice date. Her husband had just looked strangely uncomfortable the entire time, flipping through a bingo book and shaking his head.

After that, Naruto had gone ahead and walked her home, just as she'd hoped he would - and then, immediately inside the gates of the Hyuuga compound, she collided with her father.

"F...Father!" she yelped in alarm, nearly collapsing backwards, barely maintaining her balance.

He grunted at her, narrowing his eyes. "What is it that you're doing, coming home so exhausted, Hinata?" he demanded, crossing his arms over his chest, staring down at her sternly with both eyebrows raised, and his byakugan active.

"Training!" she blurted out, too stunned to try and lie. " teammates and I, w...we train, very hard... Almost every day."

"I am curbing this overzealous training," he warned her abruptly, shaking his head.

Her head spun in response ... she wondered if the Hokage would grant amnesty if she were to plead? Maybe if she begged for the caged bird seal as a lesser sentence?

"If it's not by order of your teachers, I'm only permitting this unsupervised training of yours every other day," he reproved. "Otherwise, when you are released from your duties, your energy will be put to better use, practicing the family style as is proper."

She resisted the impulse to stare at him in mute shock; he wasn't asking her a question, so she gave an automatic, dutiful nod of compliance and understanding. She could still train with Naruto ... every other day?

Somehow, that made everything bearable, again. Maybe ... some day she could get strong enough, like him, and have a bunshin to spend time with him while she was training with her father?

She knew how Naruto would treat this proclamation. She recovered her senses and gave the imposing figure of the Hyuuga patriarch a look of absolute determination. "I am honored to be granted so much of your attention, Father," she swore. This was an opportunity to try and learn something for Naruto, even if it meant she wouldn't get to spend as much time with him as she'd liked...

Her father's grim visage betrayed the smallest, nearly hidden traces of an approving smile. "I am pleased that you understand," he declared in a bored, impassive tone. "You are to wash and go to bed immediately; no morning training before your jounin-sensei demands your attention, tomorrow."

"Understood," she replied instantly, nodding, already marching towards the main building.

"Oh," he said, as an aside, reaching a hand out and freezing her in place with a single touch to her shoulder. He leaned close, his seal-marked folding fan flying open in his other hand, concealing his mouth from anyone else who might be watching through walls elsewhere across the compound as he whispered, "If you are to carelessly become pregnant while unwed ... I will become very displeased."

He rose, the fan immediately folding away and vanishing into the sash of his robes - or his sleeves. Hinata was too flustered to activate her kekkai genkai and be certain.

She blinked, raw alarm overriding any attempt at self-control as she jerked a nervous nod in response. "U...understood," she managed, weakly.

"Good," he said, nodding as he strode away.

Though he hadn't really been expecting it, Choji found that his new life as a ninja fell into familiar, comfortable patterns. He didn't always know who he would be on a team with, but for the most part, he was able to see that his teammates were reliable. Even better, since Naruto and Sasuke were busy fighting any time Sakura and Ino weren't, the others had all been too distracted to tease him.

And that had worked just fine, right up until Naruto's first 'training game'. There, Kiba had chosen him because they knew one-another, and no other reason.

Shikamaru knew Choji and could judge him accurately. He hadn't expected the Inuzuka boy to start seeing genuine combat potential in the Akimichi frame, but that was out, and now instead of hiding from being mocked, Choji found himself someplace very unusual for him.

He was slightly more than adequate.

There was no profound praise, nor were there harsh rebukes. Around him, the other genin simply were, as though the eight of them were too busy caught up in their own issues, and none of them had time to notice Choji by the sidelines - except that he wasn't a liability.

Strangely, he found that he was growing increasingly comfortable with this - being acknowledged and then ignored.

But by that same token, he knew it wouldn't last forever...

After a dull, but easily survivable day with Asuma, he joined up with Shikamaru and Shino again, ready to weather Kakashi's training.

For whatever reason, Shikamaru and Shino were standing a good distance apart, both leaning on the same railing of the bridge. He moved wordlessly to stand between them, when without even opening his eyes, Shikamaru warned, "We're almost exactly one explosive tag radius apart; you should be safe if you switch to the other side of the bridge from us."

Nodding, Choji crossed over, between and opposite the other boys.

Pulling a bag of chips from his belt pouch, Choji wondered, "Do you think we'll get a lecture instead of practice, like Naruto?"

"Only if he gets tired of showing us all the ways we could have really died in the field," Shikamaru answered with a shrug.

"That's okay ... you're here, and so is Shino. If we can win as a team, I think we will."

Shino adjusted his glasses slightly, seeming to notice Choji almost for the first time. "Indeed," he agreed. "Teamwork is the answer."

After that, the trio was greeted by Kakashi appearing and announcing very brightly, "Good morning, students; we've got a lot of combat practice to get through before you're caught up to Sasuke's girlfriends - and Naruto - so let's get to it!"

From there, despite all of Shikamaru's evident planning (kawarimi being the most obvious defense), Kakashi shoved each of them into the river and then led them on a chase to the practice ground.

"Slow up," Shikamaru ordered, once they climbed out of the water and Shino was set to follow. After heaving a sigh, he groused, "It's a test of our awareness as much as anything else."

Shino nodded. "A kikaichu clone is following him," he announced. "We must maintain formation for defensive value as we proceed towards the target."

"Tell me where to go," Choji offered. He was solid. He might not know the way to go, but he could take point.

Shikamaru fell into step behind him, and Shino moved to his side, as a Kakashi kage bunshin popped up over a nearby roof and flung a trio of senbon at them.

Without a kunai readied, Choji had to settle for the significantly clumsier method of letting them sink harmlessly into the flesh of his hands. Well, harmless except for the pain, anyway. Thankfully, they were kage bunshin senbon, and so vanished into chakra smoke before needing to be pulled. Still, the penalty for delaying had been well established.

"My cute little students ... when taking point, be prepared to defend yourself and your teammates!"

The looming question in Choji's mind was ... what had happened to the uninspired Naruto who had been 'dead last' in class? Where had the one that made even the dreaded Bastard-sensei acknowledge his skill come from?

More importantly... With all of the drama Choji had tried to avoid being involved with ... was Naruto still his friend?

Free of Kakashi, both Sakura and Ino were civil to one-another, though Naruto was certain there was some tension between them anyway. Some hidden, invisible force seemed to pass between the two of them, making an impression on the edge of his senses and constantly making him itch, like an explosive tag was on the way in.

Kurenai was as cheerful as ever, even though Naruto was a bit put off that Hinata hadn't come over - again. There would have to be a good reason for that ... but waking up with her nearby had really done worlds of good to getting rid of Mizuki's pleading face, and losing that...

He hadn't even really realized how much he appreciated what she'd done for him, and then it abruptly stopped. Maybe he was being a bad friend to her?

That was worth considering, but Kurenai didn't seem to notice that he was trying to figure something like that out, and Sakura and Ino were quietly engaged in some sort of duel he was only barely able to tell was even going on. After that, she cheerfully demonstrated how tree-climbing worked, and told them to start practicing.

And a shift in focus was just the thing Naruto was looking for, so he eagerly threw himself into practicing...

Of course, Sakura took her time, not even starting until after she'd thought about it for a good five minutes.

Then she walked slowly to the top of the tree from there and sat down on one of the higher branches to watch her teammates.

Ino hadn't watched Sakura at all, just focusing on her own attempt until her first tumble. She managed a neat landing anyway, which was better than Naruto had accomplished. For his part, three attempts left him fumbling so badly he fell off the tree twice, and once managed to trip up the tree, almost slamming his face into the unforgiving trunk.

Sakura had laughed at him quietly, then asked, "Do you need help, Naruto?"

"Um," he said, sitting in a pile at the bottom of his tree, scratching the back of his head. Ino was making steady progress; probably she'd be more than halfway up the tree by lunch. For himself... "I could use some!" he said, nodding quickly.

Snorting, she pink-haired girl crossed her arms over her chest from her perch. "Think about what you're doing before you do it," she chastised him. "You still didn't figure out that thing I told you to research yesterday, did you?"

He resisted the urge to pout, instead turning his gaze to stare at the tree trunk. He'd sent a bunshin to pester the head chunin instructor at the academy about Sakura's question, since even staying late at the library he hadn't gotten any answers trying to find whatever an 'enten-hari' was.

"I'm working on it," he answered.

And, anyway ... if he understood things, Sakura was going to withhold her help until he managed to answer her questions. Oh well. He turned a curious look at the blond girl, who had stopped to catch her breath, studying her tree thoughtfully between attempts. He'd really rather get on the pink-haired girl's good side ... but Ino already seemed to like him.

"Ino-chan, you're doing better than me," he offered. "Hey, maybe we can practice together and help each other out?"

She turned to look back at him, raising an eyebrow and offering a small smile. "Sure!" she replied, nodding. "As teammates, we look out for each other like this all the time, right? I'll help you, Naruto! No problem at all!"

For some reason, the silently observing figure of Kurenai looked doubtful ... but she said nothing to either of the golden-haired genin, instead tilting her gaze upwards to take in Sakura, who looked annoyed for reasons Naruto couldn't quite figure out.

"Alright, Sakura," the teacher remarked, before the pink-haired girl could comment. "Since you've gotten a good grasp of tree-climbing, let's work on the next important skill; come down here, and we'll leave these two to practice while I get you started on water walking, alright?"

"Good for you, Sakura-chan!" Naruto encouraged, as he finished trotting to Ino's side. He grinned and waved at the pink-haired girl. "Practice hard; Ino-chan and I are gonna catch up in no time!"

Kurenai nodded, then made Naruto's own favorite hand-seal, leaving ... either herself or a bunshin behind to watch over himself and Ino, while the other went off through the trees with Sakura.

"You two are doing very well," the woman said warmly, once Sakura was out of earshot. "It's especially good that you're focusing on teamwork so much! I understand that Kakashi-sensei spends quite a bit of time drilling with you in that?"

Ino and Naruto exchanged a glance before nodding.

"Mm," the woman mused, nodding slowly. "Well, keep practicing!"

Naruto shook his head and turned to Ino. "I get the part about sending chakra out through my feet, but sometimes it feels like I'm sticking too hard, and sometimes I just fall off right away!" he complained.

The blonde looked thoughtful for a minute. "Well, you're sending out a consistent amount of chakra, right?" she asked. "You generate a bunch of it in your hara, and then use the same amount with each step?"

Naruto scratched the back of his head and allowed a nervous chuckle to escape. "Uh ... so ... you have to time it against the pulses of chakra that refill your hara?" he wondered.

Ino's expression became very skeptical. "Naruto ... that should only happen when you're trying to draw in more chakra. I don't think you want to generate more chakra while you're learning a training exercise. Gather, spend, step - and then when you're steady, gather more chakra... Like that!"

"Yes," Kurenai agreed. "Trying to utilize your chakra system while performing other skills is something you will want to do as a ninja, but it's generally better to learn the skill first, and then practice using it while focusing additional chakra later."

"Yeah, but ... this isn't the chakra you gather for like, something really major, like a jutsu," Naruto protested, "this is just the stuff that happens all the time, right? You know ... how you're just minding your own business, and then sometimes your hara sends out a big surge of chakra for no real reason?"

Ino stared blankly.

Kurenai looked mildly puzzled, until sudden comprehension seemed to dawn on her. "Ah ... Naruto," she said slowly, her eyes tracking away. "That... I believe Asuma-sensei will be able to explain more to you about that, but for the time being ... when that happens it's like a hiccup, right? Your chakra system becomes ... unsteady for a brief period?"

"Yeah, so anything you've got to keep using chakra for is really hard to rely on," he said, nodding. A regular bunshin, for example. His techniques all had to work around that inherent unreliability of chakra; the henge was straightforward. Once he assembled the image and fed it chakra, the technique was done. Kage bunshin worked the same way; once they were around, they were there.

Tree walking, though ... that was a constant process that he needed to monitor, and the regular surges of chakra from within... Well, once he spent even a moment to think about it... From the kyuubi... Maybe other people wouldn't have that kind of an issue? But, how was he supposed to practice around it, if no one else in the world seemed to have a similar situation?

Or know what to do about it?

What a depressing thought.

"Well, personally, I've found that the best way to defeat hiccups is by holding my breath," Kurenai said after a moment of thoughtful pause. "So! Why don't we try the equivalent, and see how it works for you?"

"Huh?" Ino and Naruto replied together.

The jounin explained, "When you learned the leaf focus exercise, Naruto, you learned to suppress those surges of chakra. I know I said it's normally not productive to mix and match exercises ... but in your case, it may be somewhat easier to learn this if you practice the leaf focus exercise, as well; that will reinforce your chakra control, and allow you to overcome those surges."

He blinked at that. That had to be one of the first times he'd ever gotten anything explained to him by a teacher that made sense without another student translating for him.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, immediately finding a likely leaf and sticking it to his forehead. He went through the steps to focus, and once he was confident the leaf was securely stuck, he placed one foot against the trunk of the tree with cautious, careful deliberation. It took almost a full minute to shuffle up five steps, but suddenly, he understood it. He nearly fell off the tree in his excitement, only the safety net of the leaf concentration exercise keeping him steady.

"Very good!" Kurenai praised him, nodding. "Now, Ino, your chakra control is already well developed, so you should be able to follow!"

"Naruto!" Ino complained, smiling, but sounding a tiny bit frustrated anyway. "You've got to help me out, now!"

"Of course!" he agreed, two steps later. "I guess this must be the slow way to do it..." He was making significantly worse time than Sakura, that was certain.

"We learn to crawl before we learn to walk," Kurenai said simply. "There's nothing to be ashamed of here."

That was encouraging; he'd be sure to put dozens of bunshin on the exercise later. He was willing to bet that if he played his cards right, he could give Shino, Shikamaru, and Choji a huge edge on the tree-climbing exercise, in terms of what he could learn about it.

To say nothing of the potential to be able to just jog up the tree at a whim - that would be awesome, too! First, though ... as his friend Kuonji's wife needed to point out a few times while he was trying to explain dating to Hinata, he needed to work on his ability to teach people things.

"Okay!" he said cheerfully. "So, this is what I've figured out so far..."

With Shikamaru's stratagems, and Choji's rugged resilience, the trio had managed to weather Kakashi's onslaught for a good half an hour straight before he finally relented. Shino was fairly certain that the one-eyed bastard had a vendetta against his student's clothes - or more likely, he wanted to leave as many reminders of the severity of combat with them as possible.

Either way, it was an annoyance, so when he finally told them they had progressed, and earned a day of lecture, Shino unleashed the reserve of kikaichu he had been withholding, and sent a copy of their team into the clearing ahead of the genin.

One explosive trap later, and Shino felt the acute loss of all those kikaichu... That trick was cheaper for Naruto by far.

But that was the genuine end of hostilities, at least, on the jounin's part. A carefully thrown cluster of senbon were all dodged, almost as if on accident. Shikamaru tried that once only, and then quit while he was ahead. Aside from which, the lecture was more interesting than almost anything else they'd had from their collective sensei.

After that was the now-habitual meeting at Senzo's, where they got their usual table, and the genin all gathered to trade notes.

More importantly for Shino, it was the first time he had seen Naruto in almost an entire day; he was eager to discover how well the kikaichu he had left with the blond had done. His own kikaichu found the stragglers, and slowly replaced them with fresh scouts; he tuned out most of the discussion while picking out the best of the lot to prepare the next generation.

Hmm ... the most efficient way to do this would be to breed two strains of kikaichu for the same purpose in parallel ... and then commingle them when positive traits emerged. He decided that as he processed the information they had gathered; nothing surprising, in any event.

When the meal ended, Hinata broke a long silence to offer Naruto a stuttering apology. ", Naruto-kun, I ... have to go home to train again, and that's ... why I wasn't by this morning., my father says that I n...need to do that every other day at least..."

"Well ... that's great!" Naruto said, though Shino felt it was somewhat lacking in conviction.

"How else will we become strong, if we don't take advantage of opportunities to train when they arise?" Sasuke contributed unexpectedly.

Shino managed not to visibly react, but he felt taken off guard by the usually standoffish boy offering something solid suddenly - and hadn't really been following the conversation right until that point.

"Oh, hey - that means you can train with me, then!" Kiba yelped excitedly. "Come on, Naruto!"

"Hey - that's true!" Naruto agreed, cheering slightly. "Alright, Hinata-chan - good luck on your training; we'll be able to practice tomorrow, right?"

"Y...yes!" she agreed, nodding her head vigorously. "Ah- I'll see you tomorrow, Naruto-kun!" With that, she paid the waitress on her way out, and dashed away.

Sasuke turned a skeptical gaze to Choji, though he said nothing, until he glanced at Ino and Sakura. "What do you two do with your idle time?" he asked.

"What?" Sakura asked, taken aback, before shaking her head. "Er- I'm free, if you wanted to go on a date!"

"Hey!" Ino protested, shooting to her feet so quickly she knocked over her chair. "Sasuke, don't go on a date with her-"

"Dating is not important," Sasuke scoffed, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. "I don't have time to date anyone - because I'm training. If you have so much free time to date, then maybe you should be training instead."

"I'll train with you," Sakura offered quickly. "I already figured out the tree-walking exercise - I've almost got water-walking, too!"

"Really?" Naruto asked, surprised. "Nice job!"

Sasuke looked briefly annoyed before shaking his head again. "I don't want to slow myself down to help you," he chided. "Naruto and the others are doing combat drills and serious workouts on their free time - why shouldn't you do the same?"

"Don't hold it in," Shikamaru remarked dryly. "Tell us how you really feel."

"This isn't something to laugh off," Sasuke said irritably, not even glancing to Shikamaru. "Why haven't you two been training harder?"

"I've been working on a cipher so we can develop a code-language for use in missions," Sakura answered, unable to keep from shooting Sasuke a small, hurt scowl.

"And I have been training at home," Ino added, frowning.

"Really?" he asked. "Because the way I heard it, Uzumaki pulled you both out of the line of fire until Kakashi got tired of dealing with his bunshin and called it quits."

"You're an idiot," Naruto finally snapped. "Why are you picking on Sakura-chan and Ino-chan? The point of Bastard-sensei's exercise was to force us to really work as a team - and we all did that. I'm pretty awesome, but we all would have been toast if Sakura-chan didn't remove those senbon, or Ino-chan hadn't decided to try and make up for being mean to Shino in the first place!"

Shino blinked at that last part, unintentionally swiveling his gaze to the blonde girl, who looked momentarily startled, before giving a quick nod, not meeting the Aburame boy's gaze. "Y...yeah," she agreed. "I got off on the wrong foot because ... um..."

Sakura looked uncertain, but said nothing.

Sasuke nodded dubiously. "All the same," he said, shrugging, "if you've got free time..." With that, he dropped a small stack of ryo on the table and walked away.

"That guy," Kiba growled, once the door was closed. "Man! He doesn't have to be so dog-damned harsh..."

"Well," Shikamaru mused. "I'm interested in this cipher, Sakura. I'd like to discuss that with you later."

Ino scowled, then shook her head, turning to Naruto. "Hey, give me a bunshin to help me practice!" she demanded.

Sighing, Naruto outlined the weaknesses of a kage bunshin, but she rolled her eyes.

"Never mind that," she said. "I need someone else to help me practice my clan techniques."

Shino thoughtfully bugged her at that, curious to see where this would go.

"Well ... okay, sure," Naruto agreed, making a copy of himself.

Kiba crossed his arms, and Akamaru glanced between the two instances of the boy. "That's got to be pretty nice, being able to send a copy of yourself with every friend you hang out with," he remarked.

"Totally," both Naruto agreed, before exchanging a high-five.

Shino realized after a moment that the kikaichu, living beings, were not duplicated by the technique. He was able to discern which Naruto was the real one. The bunshin had a convincing copy of the pheromone records, but live kikaichu would periodically update that.

After a moment of light-hearted banter, the bunshin went to stand by Ino.

If Ino was able to practice her art on a bunshin ... would she be able to discover Naruto's S rank secret? Had that idea occurred to Naruto?

"I believe your technique might cause a bunshin to disperse," Shino warned.

Shikamaru nodded, evidently thinking along similar lines.

Ino shook her head, smirking. "I'm supposed to be able to practice sensing people's presences - it's not like I'm going to be doing anything more than that."

"That sounds pretty useful," Naruto remarked.

"Sensors are considered to be a rare type of ninja," Sakura grudgingly admitted. "That's why ninja from clans like Kiba's or Hinata's tend to be placed as hunter-nin and scouts."

Kiba nodded his agreement to that remark. Shino kept his face impassive, wondering why the Aburame clan didn't have such a reputation.

"So, there you go," Ino said insistently, grabbing the real Naruto by his arm and dragging him away. A swift kawarimi swapped him with his bunshin, and the blonde didn't even appear to notice.

Naruto chuckled, shaking his head at that. "Anyway, Choji, why don't you practice with me and Kiba? Heck, you can probably practice with Kiba when I'm practicing with Hinata, too."

"Maybe then," Choji said reluctantly. "I'm actually supposed to be training with my father tonight ... I suppose if that's what we're all doing ... well, I don't want to be the one guy taking it easy."

Akamaru whimpered, and Kiba offer a sympathetic nod. "Hey, Naruto turned things around - so did Shikamaru. That leaves it to me and you to become the next bad-asses, right, Choji?" the Inuzuka boy chuckled.

"I guess so..."

"You're a trend-setter, Naruto-kun," Shikamaru observed. "Well, anyway. I'll see you tomorrow, Kiba. Take care Choji." He offered a nod for Sakura as well.

Naruto produced another bunshin effortlessly, this one to walk with Shino and Shikamaru. Sakura shook her head abruptly and turned her attention to her watch. "I want to get to the library before five," she grumbled, hurrying out of the restaurant.

Something else to wonder about, but Shino didn't have the kikaichu to spare, at the moment. Something else to work on.

Back at the Nara residence, they retreated to work on their shell-game training. The entire time, Naruto explained what he'd figured out about Kurenai's exercises, and what Ino had told him from her own observations.

"Excellent work," Shikamaru judged, contemplating. "I think ... Sakura's control is better than mine. I somehow doubt I'll pick it up as quickly as her."

"Similar for myself," Shino conceded. He trusted the shadow-user's judgment in these matters. Still, knowledge in advance was a substantial aid.

Despite the dark - or maybe, because of it - Sasuke kept training.

What would the point have been in chastising those two girls, if he himself wasn't able to adhere to the ideal he had warned them about? Of course ... that wasn't addressing the real point.

He despised the place, thanks to the memories it left him with ... but he was no coward; he wouldn't run.

Even after the massacre, he still maintained the Uchiha training grounds personally. And naturally, used them.

It was a pain in the ass, and there wasn't anyone around to even be aware that he had done it, but that wasn't the point. The point was, it was the only training area he had access to where he could guarantee that no sympathetic idiots would pop in and offer encouraging words before suggesting he relax a little.

He'd take training, if they were to offer it, but inevitably, they didn't want to. After all, he was an Uchiha; they were supposed to be geniuses. Wasn't Sasuke going to take after his brother?

He sat up from where he was catching his breath and stared into the gloom surrounding his chosen portion of the training grounds - the trees bordering the lake where he'd first started practicing his fire jutsu. His chosen tree was marked with numerous kunai slashes, each higher than the next. He was irritated that his progress had been strangely consistent - a step or two higher each attempt.

Why hadn't he ever reached some insight or suddenly leapt forward some higher number of steps?

For that matter, why hadn't he ever stumbled and fallen short at any point?

There was something to that, he was certain, and until he figured it out, throwing himself at the tree was only giving him minimal progress. If that was all he could get, of course, he'd take it ... but it seemed there had to be some better way to do it. He idly wondered how Naruto had performed when he tried it, but savagely crushed that thought.

He didn't have time to concern himself with he blond boy. He was no longer a threat to Sasuke's genin status - not like Sakura and Ino were.

Thinking about it hadn't yielded results yet. Fine - another attempt at the tree.

Steeling himself, he charged again, effortlessly slipping up the first handful of steps, until an unexpected voice distracted him, cheerfully calling out, "And what's my cute little student doing by himself in this dark corner of Konoha?"

Sasuke's balance was shot; he misstepped, using too much chakra, and tore a strip of bark off with the sole of his sandals before tumbling into the night.

Faster than he could try and catch himself, he felt an unseen presence grab the back collar of his shirt, and then for an instant the entirety of the dim night seemed to shift to a colorless gray before he found himself standing unsteadily at the base of the tree.

"You know," the legendary copy bastard mused absently from behind him, "training alone can be quite dangerous."

"I was doing fine until you distracted me," he grumbled sourly, unsure why Kakashi had interrupted him in the first place. Or, for that matter, what the hell he thought he was doing on privately owned land at this hour.

When he turned around to regard the man in the weak lighting, Kakashi's gaze was on the sliver of moon reflected in the lake.

Since he wasn't forthcoming, Sasuke finally asked, "Why are you here?"

"I had a surprisingly productive conversation on the nature of trust, and how important it is to teams," Kakashi offered. "I thought - as one sharingan-user to another - you might be interested in that insight!"

Sasuke ignored the overarching message and instead bluntly asked, "How did you get a sharingan?" Crossing his arms over his chest and peering at Kakashi doubtfully he asked, "Are you related to my family?"

Kakashi made a thoughtful sound in response, his one visible eye narrowing slightly. "You never would have gotten a chance to meet your uncle Obito ... but in point of fact, if you like, a piece of him lives on in me." He chuckled at that, though there was no humor in the laugh at all.

"Why wouldn't I have known him?" Sasuke wondered. He remembered the others of his family... He'd never forget them. He wished he could - not because he didn't respect them ... but instead because being able to forget would be rejecting Itachi's last cruel gift.

He realized his fists were clenching, and forced himself to calm.

"He was on my team when I was a jounin," Kakashi sighed, his eye closing.

"Was he strong?"

"Stronger than me," Kakashi answered. "Almost strong enough." He shook his head, his eye opening as he turned to face Sasuke. "But the point of this is that I did not respect or appreciate Obito when we were placed together. I was a ninja ... I had to overcome the difficulties presented to me by the reputation of my predecessors."

Sasuke blinked; he'd never heard any of this before. Shikamaru had pretty much all of the information any of them had on Kakashi, and that was thanks to his father.

"Ultimately ... I was not trusting enough of my teammates. There was a point in time where if I had trusted Obito enough, I believe we would have succeeded at the mission ... and more than myself would have survived," Kakashi sighed. "So ... by my choices, and my lack of faith in my teammates, Obito and Rin are no longer with us."

The Uchiha heir was completely bewildered by this. "Why would you tell me this?" he asked. Was he saying Sasuke needed to trust his teammates? "The mission was a success, right?"

"I don't really see it that way," Kakashi countered. "Oh, our objectives were accomplished. We might even call the mission 'complete'. But 'success'? No - not even the Yondaime could convince me of that."

"So you're saying I have to trust my teammates?" Sasuke asked doubtfully.

"I may be saying that," Kakashi agreed. "There's more to being recognized as a shinobi of Konoha than just learning jutsu and being skilled. Asuma is not lecturing you about the will of fire because he enjoys it." After a pause, he corrected himself to say, "Well, that's not the only reason, at any rate."

Sasuke snorted, shaking his head. "None of this will matter when it's time to go after Itachi," he said resolutely. "I'll do my best to be a ninja of Konoha, but that's only one stepping stone on my path."

"Hmm, well, Konoha doesn't really need avengers," Kakashi mused. "And when the Hokage were to ask me why the nine rookies this year were failed, well ... it wouldn't be fair to eight other aspiring genin to say that you couldn't put Konoha first - as you swore to do before accepting your hitai-ate."

Sasuke felt his mouth dry.

"But then," Kakashi said in that same, lazy, completely absent way, "maybe it just seems like you're off to a rocky start as you and Naruto become closer friends."

The boy could only blink wordlessly in answer.

"Tell me, Sasuke, do you know what an asset allies can be?"

Sasuke shifted his shoulders and looked away. He could guess any number of answers, but he suspected Kakashi wanted to lecture, not really hear his response.

"I know what your goal is ... but allies are a form of strength, too."

"I was told to grow strong," Sasuke growled. "How is leaning on others strength?"

Kakashi's eyebrow rose, and he jabbed a finger into Sasuke's chest. "Listen," he said, now sounding very slightly annoyed, "Naruto is your rival. You two should try to be the friends that Obito and I weren't - and yes, we were exactly like the two of you. I thought Obito was an annoying, brash, loudmouth, and he thought I was coolly arrogant, hiding behind my family name and distant demeanor."

"Why?" Sasuke protested. If this was some stupid order... What the hell did trying to be friends with Naruto of all people have to do with becoming a better ninja?

"Because you're not helping your skills by hiding from him and resenting his strength," Kakashi said, shrugging as he dropped his hands to his sides. "You keep measuring yourself against him - and find yourself wanting."

Sasuke swallowed, unable to deny that, or prevent the furious scowl that came to his face.

Kakashi seemed to smile behind his mask. "So ... challenge him. Tell him that you aspire to reach that strength," Kakashi said. "The point of a rival is that you have someone to test yourself against - and in return, he can test himself against you."

"So I have to waste time sparring with him instead of improving?" Sasuke retorted.

Kakashi's invisible smile seemed like it must have widened behind his mask. "No," he clarified. "You practice until you're better than him."

"And then ... I can take on Itachi?"

"Nope! Then, you help him get stronger than you - and do it again."

Sasuke blinked, mulling that over. Kakashi was suggesting a potentially huge investment of time with this...

"A rival helps you grow stronger?" Sasuke asked, not entirely convinced.

Kakashi nodded slowly. "Look underneath the underneath. Your allies aren't just tools - they're people, and they can share their strengths with you. But ... in order to get that ... you need to be willing to share your strength with them, too. Make sense?"

Sasuke wanted to deny him ... but then, given the weight of those threats, and the promise of new strength... "Alright," he grudgingly agreed. "How do I do it?"

Kakashi chuckled again, reaching out and - irritatingly - tousling Sasuke's hair. "That's for you to figure out!" he cheered, before he vanished in a swirl of leaves.

Sasuke sat back down on the lawn instead of throwing himself at the tree again. "Rivals, huh?" he wondered, trying to get used to the idea.

After returning home from the day's training, Naruto contemplated what he had learned from two of the most interesting bunshin he had dispatched that day. Both of them related to Sakura - or at least ... her investigation.

The bunshin at the library hadn't had any new information to offer, but Sakura was strangely accepting of Naruto's presence, and had even given him a few study tips in exchange for Naruto's bunshin doing some errands for her - fetching books, mostly. After that was the more surprising response he'd gotten from the head chunin instructor at the academy, since her brother wasn't around when Naruto's bunshin stopped by to ask for more information about the mysterious 'enten-hari'.

In response, the woman had blinked slowly and remarked, "That's an interesting question ... but you know ... I shouldn't really help you out. Like I've said before, I'm only able to instruct Academy students."

Naruto had pouted, but bit his tongue at that, offering a sullen nod. Before the bunshin could disperse or leave, she thoughtfully added, "Though ... you know, you were one of Iruka-sensei's last students, weren't you?"

Naruto offered a hesitant nod in return.

"Hmm. Okay, let's make a deal here, then. Uzumaki-kun, how would you like a part-time job?"

"I have a full-time job!" Naruto protested, frowning. "I'm a genin!"

"And yet, you're here right now, aren't you?" the teacher posed.

Naruto allowed a grudging nod.

"Hmm. Okay, well ... see, I need someone who knows how well Iruka-sensei taught, right? How else can I give myself a good basis of comparison?"

Naruto started at that. "That's a strange idea," he mused.

"Hey, many years ago, I had a reputation, you know," the the redhead warned with a smirk. "I used to be the number one most surprising ninja in Konoha!"

"No way!" he couldn't keep himself from exclaiming.

"Way," she returned, nodding gravely.

"Who was it before you?" Naruto wondered.

"Oh, the Yondaime, and before him, one of the Sannin," the woman answered, waving a hand dismissively. "I doubt I could compete with the current holder of that title..." She gave him a smirk, and he couldn't help but flush with mild pride.

"Anyway," she continued, with a shrug, "if you agree to take this job, I won't be able to pay much, and I'll need you to come in to class under henge to avoid any students recognizing you ... but if you agree, then maybe we can figure out if I'm missing any of the details that Iruka would have remembered to teach. And if you've forgotten, or want to brush up on anything that you were supposed to learn in the academy, I can fill in some of the blanks for you, eh?"

He was pretty sure that there was no way he'd ever willingly go back to the academy - especially with Iruka gone. But then ... the new teacher just as much admitted that she wouldn't compare, and wanted Naruto's opinion to fix that?

Throw in the bonus of her occasionally - hopefully, at least - answering some of Naruto's questions...

"Your brother's wife is a cook, right?" Naruto wondered aloud.

She snorted and rolled her eyes. "I get your angle. I'll be sure to let Uc-chan know you have some credit when you drop by, since kage bunshin won't get much from eating anything."

"Oh, right," the bunshin agreed with a laugh, nodding. "Well, that sounds like an okay deal! But, you'll say what that thing I was asking about is?"

"If you succeed at your first day, yes, but there's one extra condition," the teacher warned with a grin. "I said you would have to come in under henge, right? Well ... this is your infiltration practice. The kind of thing that's covered in the academy, naturally - just a bit more difficult, since you're really a genin.

"Not just a henge - you need to learn how to develop a genuine cover, too. So, your teacher's assistant persona needs a reasonable back-story, a look that's separate from yours without being too distinctive... Well, all of this is a test to prove that you're ready to be a teacher's assistant, eh?"

"I guess ... normally only chunin are allowed to teach, so it'd take a lot of work for a genin to be allowed to do this," Naruto said slowly.

"Usually, this kind of role is given to a genin who lost teammates, leaving them unable to perform normal missions temporarily," she explained, reaching into a supply pouch and pulling out an academy handbook. "Here's your homework to find out the rest of the rules. Most infiltrations won't give you this much information, you know."

"That's okay," Naruto said eagerly. "This is gonna be easy!"

"Oh, really?" the woman asked, one eyebrow arching higher, her grin sharpening.

"Er... You're on my side, right?"

"I may be ... but in order to make this interesting, why not up the ante? Think you can also infiltrate as a new academy student?" she wondered. "Still too easy?"

Naruto narrowed his eyes and thought about it. Two bunshin at the academy all day? One would be fine, but double that...

"I don't think I'd get paid enough," he decided, shaking his head.

She chuckled, "Smart kid. So, do we have a deal?"

And then, the bunshin had agreed, running back home before dispersing, leaving Naruto alone in his room with an academy handbook, wondering why he'd gotten himself stuck with such a poor-paying job. Really, if he were to use henge and 'infiltrate' there were much better paying part-time jobs out there to send bunshin to...

Then again, since it was a bunshin instead of him, maybe it wasn't so bad?

He left a bunshin to stay up reading the handbook and working on his cover for the teacher's assistant role, then went to bed, resolved to think about it further in the morning.

Still unable to determine what the Hokage's need for Mizuki's remains had been, Shikaku found himself sitting alone in his study, brooding over what it might mean. The sandaime had offered no further information once the Ino-Shika-Cho trio accomplished their grisly mission.

He sat surrounded by his books and worn strategy maps from various conflicts in the Shinobi wars ... including one that his own father had put on the same wall, long, long ago.

He glanced up at the sight of his son ambling in from the backyard, knuckling back a yawn. "Yo," Shikamaru said disinterestedly, eyes tracking briefly to that same, most worn map.

Shifting, sitting up straighter in his seat, Shikaku returned, "Son. What's on your mind?"

He supposed he could train the boy, but it seemed he was working himself to the point of exhaustion regularly anyway - a very unexpected outcome from his graduation.

"We've been doing some training exercises with Naruto-kun, since he can make an army of disposable opponents at the snap of a finger," Shikamaru explained. "I was wondering about using some of our family land for some of our practice."

Shikaku grunted at that, nodding slowly. A surprisingly clever use of Naruto's bunshin, he supposed... "Have a seat," he said, gesturing to an empty chair.

Somewhat bemused, Shikamaru shrugged and did as he was told, taking another of the large, comfortable cushions in the room.

"Do you remember what I told you about Uzumaki?" the elder Nara wondered. "When you were young?"

Shikamaru frowned, but nodded. He'd been perceptive then, too, and asked why he had heard from some of his fellow academy students that Naruto should have been avoided. He did the obvious thing and asked his parents why. "You said that you wouldn't answer, but I should get to know him and make my own decisions," he answered.

"And, have you?"

Scowling slightly, the younger boy answered, "I'm working on that. Right now, Naruto-kun ... is a teammate. And an ally." He shook his head, turning to stare at the same strategy map again. "More than anything else ... he's a friend."

Shikaku nodded, satisfied with that answer. "Good," he decided. "But I sense that it was a question that brought you here."

Shikamaru nodded, his expression relaxing. "I just wanted to find some out-of-the-way corner of our property, so we can practice without scaring the deer or spilling into someone else's territory," he explained. "So, in order to do that, I need to get into the vault and double-check the territory claims."

Shikaku concealed his surprise and nodded with feigned disinterest. "Mmm," he mused. "I'll give you a note to get in."

"Thank you," the boy answered, looking just relieved enough to confirm Shikaku's suspicion of an ulterior motive.

After his son left the study, Shikaku set his attention on what real motivation Shikamaru would have to go into the property records vault. There wasn't much of interest there, not really. Death records were close by, but there was usually an ANBU posted, even though it was low security. Anything more than that ... well, Shikaku would be seriously alarmed if his son were able to bypass that security.

So, probably death records, then. The only reasons Shikaku could think of for that, well ... the most recent entires in that archive would be Iruka and Mizuki ... but their files hadn't actually been released from the more secure reaches of the bureaucracy yet. And, anyway, why would his son or any of his friends be interested in that?

Mulling it over, Shikaku came to an unsatisfying conclusion.

His son, like himself, wasn't content to abide a mystery - he wanted to see what was behind the mystery. And there, he'd been so irritated by everything - especially Senzo...

Shikamaru knew that Naruto held an S rank secret, and wanted to find out what it was. Shikaku allowed a grunt of irritation to escape as he folded his legs beneath him and contemplated. He was confident that his own son was smart enough that once he knew the circumstances behind Naruto, he wouldn't be that worried about it.

All the same, he couldn't tell the boy ... not without violating the Hokage's orders.

He'd have liked it much more if Naruto had trusted Shikamaru enough to volunteer the information, but then, considering the last time it had been spoken of around Naruto, two chunin had died and he spent the entire night in ANBU lock-down... Unfortunately, the Uzumaki boy wasn't likely to offer that secret out, yet.

Then again, what if Shikamaru betrayed the forming trust between him and Naruto by prying as he had?

The best he could really do was try and control what Shikamaru discovered. Though, by searching the death records...

He nodded slowly in thought. If Shikamaru was using all of the tools at his disposal - his allies - then... Shikaku pursed his lips as he came to a decision, then rose to his feet. Inoichi would still be awake at this hour, and Choza, too. Being able to see more of the board than Shikamaru, he could plan more effectively.